History of Preservation Summer
Preservation Summer 2009: African American Experience at the Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, 1820-1889
Preservation Summer 2009, was directed by Dr. Rachel Ensor of the history department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The project focused on the history of Cairo, particularly its African American community in the 19th century, and the restoration of a pair of shotgun houses. The course began with a two week workshop on the architectural restoration of 2710 Sycamore Street. Supported by the Heritage Conservation Network and taught by Mr. Bill Black Jr. of Paducah students began with the reclamation process which was continued throughout the summer by two architecture students. The reclamation workshop was titled “Saving Shotguns: Aiming for a Better Community”. During the remaining eight weeks history interns worked to answer their research question, Why is the African American population so prominent in the three southernmost counties of Illinois, Massac, Alexander and Pulaski?
Researchers found a rich history with unexpected turns and conclusions. The Union occupation of Cairo was the onset of prosperous and ethnic change for the area. During the Civil War approximately 200,000 refugees, primarily destitute African Americans, passed through the town. The local contraband/ freedmen’s camp, school and hospital cared for whoever knocked on their doors. As a result Cairo became the “land of Canaan” for the newly freed. Opportunity to serve in the Union Navy and Army arose for both men and women. The first woman to receive a pension from the federal government was an African American Union Navy nurse, Anne Stokes Bowman. She settled in the area upon her return as did many others. During reconstruction African Americans such as John J. Bird and William T. Scott came to the town in search of opportunity. Both became ardent political leaders and city officials in Cairo. From 1862 to 1900 Cairo became a jewel of successful reconstruction with the first African American newspaper and thriving businesses owned by brothers and sisters throughout the community.
Given this history the research team decided to attempt to reconstruct the town, significant events and experiences of Cairo citizens after the war via individual research projects. The Cairo: Then and Now website project illuminates the business district on Commercial street and will eventually follow suit with streets on either side. Research projects revealed a rich history of contributions made by African American soldiers and leaders. African Americans in public office and as city officials, unheard of in most towns, were normal for Cairo along with the first African American newspaper. Blacks and whites lived next door to one another, not in segregation. Such was the case for the shotgun house at 2710 Sycamore. Post Civil War Cairo was a microcosm of what the reconstruction was meant to be. While it was not perfect it hit the mark more closely than most. Unfortunately Cairo’s success began to fade after 1910. While Southern Illinois has fallen on some hard times, the stamina and energy of those early pioneers still resides in history. We need to save their legacy for future families to enjoy and study. An exhibition of this summer’s research entitled, African American Contributions to Southern Illinois 1862-1900 will be presented at the University Museum January 19 to March 5, 2010. Accordingly preservation summer will continue to focus on the history of Cairo, Illinois and African American contributions to the area from 1862-1900 for the next four summers.