Preserving Cairo’s past and present

Highlighting different narratives with the Cairo Historical Preservation Project

Cairo Board 2022 scaled

By Hannah Kucharzak

Read Time 6 minutes
December 13, 2023

Beyond census counts and economic reports, a small town has a collective history. Whether it be oral histories told across generations, or photos and documents residing in scrapbooks instead of textbooks, there are pieces of a town’s legacy that an outsider would have a hard time recognizing. 

Don Patton, president of the Cairo Historical Preservation Project, is leading the charge in getting Cairo, Illinois the recognition that it deserves, and Illinois Humanities is proud to award the organization a Foreground Rural Initiative grant to assist in their efforts.

The Cairo Historical Preservation Project’s pursuits don’t end with brand new plaques and historical markers—Patton’s larger goal is to bestow a spirit of pride and rejuvenation that residents can take ownership of and to inspire young leaders to take an interest in Cairo’s vast history. Without organizations working to preserve their history, small towns are vulnerable to becoming overlooked, misremembered, or unfairly dismissed. However, for Cairo, this isn’t the case.  

A Mission Beyond Four Buildings

The Cairo Historical Preservation Project focuses its time and resources on not only preserving the integrity of four of Cairo’s architectural treasures, but highlighting the stories inside them, as well. 

  • Cairo Ward Chapel AME Church

    Ward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church has an astoundingly rich history in addition to having served as a place of worship through 2010. The organization of A.M.E. Church began in the home of Maria Renfro in 1863, and its small congregation were strong abolitionists, protecting freedom seekers escaping the South. Later established as Ward Chapel A.M.E. Church, the building played an integral role in the 1960s Civil Rights movement in Illinois, hosting influential leaders like Congressman John Lewis and Reverend Jesse Jackson. 

  • Cairo Magnolia Manor

    Magnolia Manor is a 14-room, red brick, Victorian mansion with a stunning facade. It famously hosted a lavish celebration for its original owner’s longtime friend, president Ulysses S. Grant, who had held command in Cairo as a Civil War general. 

  • Cairo Custom House

    Throughout its lifetime, Cairo’s Custom House has served as a customs house, post office, courthouse, and police station. Completed in 1872, the historic government building was built in the Italianate style, a rarity among federal buildings, and was designed by Alfred B. Mullett, the United States Supervising Architect at the time. 

  • Cairo Library

    The Cairo Public Library's A. B. Safford Memorial Building houses over 50,000 volumes of books. Built in 1884, the library was presented to the city of Cairo by Anna Eliza Safford, in memoriam of her late husband.

  • Cairo Board 2022

    The founding Cairo Historical Preservation Project, Inc. Board of Directors, 2021-2022,  at the inaugural Cairo Magnolia Celebration fundraiser, May 14, 2022. From left to right, guest IL State Rep. Paul Jacobs, VP Monica Smith, Director Robbin Patterson, Secretary Jim Fredlund, Treasurer Amy Farrow, keynote speaker IL State Sen. Dale Fowler, Director Jay Holder, President Don E. Patton, and Founding Director Pete Kaha.

While Magnolia Manor and Custom House are already on the National Register of Historic Places, the Cairo Historical Preservation Project (CHPP) has been working to earn additional official markers for the town’s historic gems. Presently, CHPP is working with the National Park Service to recognize the significance of the contraband camp that was located in Cairo during the Civil War, honoring the resiliency of the freedom seekers who traveled through the town to reach their independence.

Cairo’s Narratives

We had the pleasure of talking with Don Patton to get a deeper look into how his views on preservation have shaped the work that the Cairo Historical Preservation Project does, and what goes into mobilizing small-town communities to work together in driving change. 

What is your perspective on preservation? Why is it important to maintain the integrity of Cairo’s history? 
Cairo Billboard

For me, it’s being able to connect the past to the future, and particularly, from an educational standpoint, being able to transfer the information to the generation to come. Cairo is unique, I think—for a town of this size, and where we're located—and we have a very unique, rich, architectural history. 

It's about the buildings, but more importantly, it's about the people. That's the byproduct of all this, at least from my perspective, the byproduct is community engagement. We're engaging the public to look at a different narrative. There's another narrative here, there's the richness here, there are assets here—let's talk about that. Obviously, we can't forget about those negatives, but let's also be comprehensive and talk about our assets. And that's what we've chosen to do. 

That’s one of Cairo Historical Preservation Project’s greatest triumphs—choosing to highlight a different narrative. What do you see as the key to your organization’s success? 

In general, my philosophy in life is to be an optimistic person—reasonably optimistic. I mean, I'm not Pollyanna, but if you read the history of Cairo from its early days [in the mid-19th century] and then now, Cairo has been bruised and bleeding, and is still bleeding. 

I'm paraphrasing Toni Morrison. The quote is: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear… I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”

Yeah, there are some things you can concentrate on that are negative in Cairo, but I think if you want to go down that rabbit hole, we lose sight of all the beautiful assets in the town. So we're wanting to highlight our treasures, not only buildings, but there are people that have come through here. 

For instance, Congressman John Lewis, in his early days of being the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, trained nonviolent resistors at Ward Chapel A.M.E. Church. 

The Flying Black Medics came through here in the early 70s and used Ward Chapel as a health clinic for the impoverished African Americans who, at that time, weren't getting basic health care treatments. 

So we choose to tell those stories, as opposed to self-pitying ourselves. And so I really see the Cairo Historical Preservation Project as being a translator of some of the uniqueness of our rich culture here in Cairo. 

The Cairo Historical Preservation Project is currently working to receive historic designation from the National Park Services for its role in protecting freedom seekers during the Civil War. Tell me more about this incredible piece of Cairo’s history. 

Cairo was a strategic point in the Civil War. The Ohio and the Mississippi rivers controlled the flow of traffic and there were important battles fought near here. There was a famous battle where many African Americans, or freedom seekers, were able to leave and escape for freedom, and they came to Cairo. Cairo was part of one of the Liberty Lines on the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers came into Cairo on their way to Canada, because in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act said if you were running from injustice, people had the right to capture you and send you back. Even though Illinois was a “free state,” actually, in reality, due to the Fugitive Slave Act, it was not. 

Also there was a military contraband camp located in Cairo, on the old grounds of McBride housing project, which was demolished a few years back. We want to designate that site to let people know the history that happened here. To be able to tell that story for other people who can't tell that story. So we are working with the National Park Service to be able to put up a landmark designation sign stating that here on these grounds was a military contraband camp and these individuals were looking for freedom, humanity, and justice. 

What advice would you give to an organization that is struggling to preserve their town's history? 

I think it’s important to reach out to everyone. Let everyone know what you're trying to do. And also make sure you're reaching out to diverse people in your town so that you can be able to tell the complete story. Develop allies, people, and organizations who may have a different purpose in what they're doing, but reach out to them and say, “hey, this is what I'm doing, would you join us in this project?” 

For example, Rise Community Market. For seven years, Cairo was a food desert. And back in May, it opened up a co-op, and we decided as an organization to highlight and postulate the story that they were no longer a food desert. So we held a photo contest with a monetary prize where we encouraged people to take unique photos around newly installed benches throughout the town at four of our parks. That way, we engaged individuals in telling the story that we're no longer a food desert—we developed an ally with the Community Market through that activity.  

I think those things are important where you get people to come in agreement with a similar purpose to assist in happier, future endeavors. 

Illinois Humanities is honored to be a part of the Cairo Historical Preservation Project’s history. Visit their website to learn about ways you can help them achieve their goals in uplifting Cairo’s bright legacy.