When I woke up in Cape Girardeau Missouri not only was it still raining, it was foggy. When I opened the hotel blinds I couldn’t see my Buick across the parking lot.I hadn’t slept well. I kept waking up wondering where I was and what I was doing. Seems like I used to adapt more quickly.
I stayed in a Drury’s Motel, which in addition to offering free breakfasts like all the other mass market interstate hotels, also provided a free dinner buffet till 10:00 p.m. complete with three free drinks; your choice of wine, beer, or hard liquor. Pretty hard to pass up.So Drury’s, who along with their peers were not content with taking virtually all the interstate travelers out of breakfast places like Denny’s, Waffle House, and Bob Evans, was attempting to also steal the night time trade of travelers who might otherwise have flocked to the chain restaurants that surround them. It wasn’t the best dinner, tacos, salad, and the like, but three free drinks? Who says no to that, especially when it’s raining? Not me. They served Maker’s Mark . Disturbing trend I’m sure for the restaurant industry.
Although I had not been in Missouri long I headed through the fog back to Illinois. I crossed the Mississippi for the second time on Route 45, and on the Illinois side headed South on Route 3 towards Olive Branch.Had I gone but a few miles north on Illinois 3 I could have visited the town of McClure. But other than saying I’d been there, what would I have seen? McClure is a town of 400 named after Thomas McClure and his wife Caroline. Tom used to be the postmaster. Someone saved the big old McClure house and put it on one of those registers of historic places. The town still has a post office, but Wikipedia reports “only a few businesses remain.” I skipped it.
The fog was clearing off but it was still sprinkling rain. As I went further south water stood in ditches on both sides of the road and you could almost feel the rivers closing in. I could picture the map and the narrowing spit of land I was driving on, nearly engulfed by water. I was nearing the very tip of Illinois, defined by the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. There were no intersecting roads. The land was taking on a swampy look.I drove past the Cairo Regional Airport. The runway was mostly covered with water. One pickup truck and no planes were parked by the hanger, no longer if ever a bustling transportation hub. I drove through Klondike, then Future City. You have to be hopeful to name a place Future City. It looked to me that hope had faded long ago for that small burg.
And then I came into Cairo. Cairo is not pronounced like the city at the mouth of the Nile River in Egypt (Kigh’ row) or like your old time corn syrup (Kay’ row). Locals say Care’ O. If you want to be hip you say Care’ O too.The word that best describes Cairo, however you want to say it, is empty. Aside from my Buick, there were few cars moving about. The streets were oddly quiet. I turned down a side street and passed under a sign that said “Cairo Historic District.” A wide avenue with big houses greeted me. Some looked good. Others were abandoned.
The four murals recalled the past. Lewis and Clark had stayed in the area for four days on their expedition. Another mural marked geologic periods of the past. Yet another steamboat traffic and ferries. None recorded any part of Cairo’s last hundred years. There’s a reason for that.Something happened in Cairo. Something bad. In 1969 when I was a freshman at ISU I attended meetings of an organization called “Friends of Cairo.” The meetings were dominated by African Americans from Cairo giving witness to the racial war being waged in their town. I was a farm kid from an all white community, but I was learning. How could I not have known about this till I went to that first meeting? After almost fifty years, I had to see visit the scene of these crimes.
In March of 1969 a police car was hit with bullets, a black man’s car had its windows shot out in retaliation, and several white men fired at the predominantly black Pyramid Courts housing project from the Mississippi river levee. April saw a total of 28 fire bombings including a laundromat, a tavern, a mostly black high school, and the Tri County Health Clinic which was set ablaze twice. During the second fire, firemen responding to the fire were shot at. In another incident, white police officers trying to enter the Pyramid Courts housing project to conduct a search for a murder weapon were confronted by 200 black residents and forced to leave.May of 69 saw 175 national guardsman and 30 state policemen dispatched to aid Cairo’s 15 man police force in an attempt to enforce a temporary curfew. Police and business leaders testified at hearings in Springfield on the unrest, while the Negro United Front organization protested the presence of members of the vigilante “White Hats” group, predominately white business owners, at those same hearings. Later that month, gunmen attacked the Cairo police station firing 100 rounds into the building in 15 minutes, while a wallpaper warehouse and the Tri-County Health Clinic were firebombed as responding firemen were fired upon. That time the health clinic was allowed to burn to the ground.
In June a legislative committee in Springfield recommended a 70 man state police force patrol the city, that “White Hats” members not be deputized, and that a federal state of emergency be declared so federal funding for housing and business development could be made available. No action was taken.In July, six ministers from the United Front of Cairo, some of whom I had heard speak at ISU, were evicted from Illinois Governor Ogilvie’s office in Springfield where they had organized a sit in.
Finally in October of 1970, after continued shootouts at the Pyramid Courts housing project and three separate automatic gunfire attacks on the Cairo police station, Governor Ogilvie ordered a 24 man state police force and an armored car to patrol Cairo for an indefinite period to stop “indiscriminate gunfire and lawlessness”. Eventually peace of a kind came to Cairo.Cairo in 1920 had a population of 15,203. In 1960 its population stood at 9,348. Cairo in 2016 had but 2,016 citizens. Little remains of the town it used to be.
Cairo is famous for being mentioned in the great American novel Huckleberry Finn. It was Huck and Jim’s destination after they left upriver on a raft from Hannibal Missouri on their great journey, but fog and the raft’s encounter with a river boat dashed that idea. Their barge floated past Cairo and were doomed to continue into the deep South.Their plan was to pull onto the Illinois shore near Cairo, sell the raft, find passage up the Ohio to states more sympathetic to runaway slaves and in doing so win Jim his freedom as a slave. Why not try their luck in Illinois? That was the question literary critics and historians later wondered. I think Cairo’s history in the late 60’s gives us the answer. Illinois may have been a free state on paper, but its southern most city offered little sympathy for black people either in Huck and Jim’s era, before the Civil War, or even a hundred years after it.
Go south of Cairo and you immediately cross a river.
I crossed the Ohio into Kentucky, found myself once again on Route 51, and stopped on a rise past Wickliffe see if I could spot where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. Turns out that rise was the old site of Fort Jefferson, established in 1780, and later used by Union forces in the Civil War. The fog was gone and the rain was merely a drizzle. I got out, stretched my legs, and saw clear as day where the Ohio joined up with America’s greatest river. I think that marks the start of the lower Mississippi. Barges were tied up, the river was high on its banks, and the current was quietly raging south. I wasn’t so sure I had picked the right time to be on a route that followed the river.