Potential and Peril Lie ‘Between Two Rivers’

A documentary film explores the rich and rough heritage of Cairo, Illinois, situated at one of the most precarious spots in all the U.S.

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“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

When Between Two Rivers, an intriguing documentary film, played at the Junior/Senior High School in Cairo, Illinois, two months ago, the line that garnered the heartiest applause was a teenage girl’s reply:

“My name’s Tyquesha, and I want to be a judge.”

For anyone familiar with this town at the brink of Illinois, the community’s strong reaction makes sense.

Tyquesha has set a goal that is both admirable and attainable.  Such goals sustain the determined optimism that Cairo’s citizens exhibit even in the face of daunting challenges.  Jay Manus, a regional civic leader who has visited 26 countries in military and diplomatic capacities, said the residents of Cairo possess “some of the greatest will to survive of any people I’ve ever met.”

At the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi, Cairo is the southernmost municipality in the Land of Lincoln – the southernmost physically, perhaps also the Southernmost culturally.  In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Mark Twain observed, “Cairo has a heavy railroad and river trade, and her situation at the junction of the two great rivers is so advantageous that she cannot well help prospering.”

The glory days of Cairo were after the Civil War and before the mass adoption of automotive travel.

Prosper it did.  In 1939 Cairo, with a population 13,532, was a major center of railroad shipping and cottonseed processing and a bustling commercial hub serving surrounding rural areas in Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky. But in 2012, the population of Cairo is less than 2,900, and the poverty rate exceeds thirty percent.

What caused the decline of this community that had so much promise and seemed well on its way to fulfilling it?  What can be done – and what is being done – to compensate and to give Cairo reasons for optimism? 

Those are the two central questions that Between Two Rivers,  the documentary by Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan, seeks to answer.

The film attributes Cairo’s misfortune to many factors. “Just a whole bunch of drops in the bucket is working against Cairo,” Tim Slapinski says in the film; Slapinski is curator of Magnolia Manor, a Victorian house maintained as a museum.

Its location at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers both put Cairo on the map and, several times, has nearly wiped it away.

Paradoxically, one of the most potent “drops” is Cairo’s foremost asset: its location at the intersection of two huge rivers.  Floods and drainage problems too often have outweighed the benefit of geography.

During the 2011 flood, which affected both the Ohio and the Mississippi and threatened Cairo, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ May 2 activated the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway immediately south of Cairo in Missouri, causing tremendous damage downriver and generating controversy. Between Two Rivers addresses that controversy by incorporating quotations from contemporaneous articles in major newspapers.  (An examination of the floodway’s ongoing recovery appears here.)

Furthermore, other modes of transportation eclipsed Cairo’s river traffic, As Tom Slapinski notes, “The invention of the airplane and the automobile really hurt Cairo.”

Also among Cairo’s liabilities were vices that flourished alongside legitimate commerce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and a strain of vigilantism alongside what some citizens considered lax  law enforcement.  Both criminal activity itself and the tactics with which residents combatted it, including two lynchings in 1909, contributed to Cairo’s downturn.

“You had all this gaming and prostitution,” Jay Manus observes in Between Two Rivers. “When the town fathers wanted to clear it up, they ran out a lot of the illicit commerce to clean up the community. But that illicit commerce was commerce, and it was a big part of what the town was running on.”

Still another factor in Cairo’s decline was the sometimes violent racial conflicts in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.  Between Two Rivers addresses that subject from various perspectives.

After the Civil War, Cairo attracted many African Americans: a thriving commercial center, it offered opportunities in a state that had sided with the Union. Yet Cairo was culturally aligned with the South, not only in its social dynamics but also its dialect, religious demographics, foodways, musical history, its history as a center of cotton processing (though that’s no longer the case), and its history of sharecropping.

After World War II, Illinois offered more generous public aid than did many nearby states.  Consequently, economically disadvantaged people from points south, including many African Americans, migrated to the nearest Illinois town: Cairo.

“People were pulling into Cairo from all over the place, different people than had been there before, and the locals resented it, and they rebelled against it, and therefore you had the racial tensions again.  These are not justifications, but they are answers for what happened,” explains Manus.

“Cairo: City in Turmoil”/Southern Illinois university
In 1969 some white residents of Cairo staged a demonstration opposing the black community’s ongoing boycott of white-owned businesses. The protest led to violence and a curfew.


Certain white residents’ rebellion against their black neighbors’ pursuit of equality was the root cause of the conflict that erupted in the late 1960s, according to local white businessman and born raconteur Rick Casper.

Casper contends that some white residents – especially the “White Hats,” the Cairo chapter of the Committee of Ten Million – tried to “save” Cairo by aggressively marginalizing its black citizens, making black customers use separate entrances to some businesses, refusing them service in others, not hiring black employees. Casper alleges that such racism inflicted socio-economic damage that still affects all the town’s citizens, both black and white.

African Americans responded to discrimination by conducting one of the longest-lasting boycotts of white-owned businesses of the entire Civil Rights Movement, but that boycott also had unintended long-term repercussions.

“The five millionaires that controlled the whole economics of Cairo, they pulled their money out and went elsewhere,” remarks local activist Clarence Dossie.  “We won the battle, but we lost the war, because we didn’t have nothing to replace the businesses.”

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan/Between Two Rivers
Rick Casper, a Cairo businessman, spoke to the documentary filmmakers with candor about the town’s racial strife.

Casper’s willingness to attribute the strife of that period largely to white residents’ recalcitrance is only one of many illustrations of the progress against racism that has been made in Cairo since then.  Still, a segment of the film in which an anonymous, off-camera speaker lays the blame for Cairo’s decline squarely upon “the blacks – if that’s what you want to call them” shows that the progress has yet to pervade all of local society.

Some Cairo residents who have seen Between Two Rivers question Casper’s interpretations of history, according to Manus. In particular, they are concerned that some of his comments, in conjunction with other scenes of the film, might convey the impression that Rev. Dr. Larry Potts, a local minister, continues to perpetuate racism.

That pastor’s previous conduct notwithstanding, he and the multi-racial congregation that he serves, Mighty Rivers Regional Worship Center, now support Cairo’s black community in various ways, including sponsoring a motivational athletic program in which dozens of African American youths participate.

That program represents just one of many responses to the second of the two central questions: What can be done – and what is being done – to address Cairo’s challenges and to give the community reasons for optimism?

Efforts to improve Cairo’s prospects include programs addressing specific, immediate challenges, as well as longer-term strategies focusing on root causes. The film mentions a few of the more immediate endeavors, including the town’s participation in Put Illinois to Work (state funding for municipalities to hire local residents for maintenance jobs) and a church-sponsored summer program that brings young people from elsewhere to do service work.

Neither the church-operated athletic program mentioned above nor those in which Harry Lee Williams, a lifelong Cairo resident who appears in the film, has been involved are featured in Between Two Rivers.  Williams told me that many of the young people he has coached and mentored have developed into healthy, productive adults.

Another initiative omitted from Between Two Rivers but featured in a 2009 CNN report is the “Shotgun Restoration Project”: though this collaboration of several local, regional, and national organizations, shotgun houses in Cairo are being renovated and made available as affordable housing, simultaneously conserving a cultural resource and meeting a socio-economic need.

Cairo’s cultural assets may also contribute toward longer-term progress.  Dr. Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University and a former member of Congress, comments in the film that the town “has the history to become a tourist point of some great magnitude.”  That history manifests itself in the community’s architecture – not only shotgun houses but also statelier homes and public buildings constructed during more prosperous times, buildings glimpsed Between Two Rivers.

Another potential source of economic opportunity, according to Manus, is the city’s original raison d’être, transportation along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.   Near the conclusion of the film, he points out that river shipping is among the cleanest, most efficient ways of moving goods.  He predicts that as commercial transportation becomes greener in coming decades, historic river ports such as Cairo might benefit.

Though the jobs generated by such a development might not be of immediate help to Cairo residents, according to Manus, they conceivably could improve the community’s economic base and foster growth in retail and other sectors.  Perhaps one of the “drops in the bucket” of Cairo’s liabilities might once again become an asset.

The greatest strength of Between Two Rivers is its inclusion of excerpts from original interviews with some 20 residents of the Cairo area.  They represent various viewpoints, but many both emphasize and exemplify the perseverance, cooperation, and hometown loyalty that largely characterize Cairo today.

Masterful cinematography presents evocative images of the natural and cultural landscapes of Cairo and its vicinity.  Archival photographs convey the grandeur of the town during its heyday.

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan/Between Two Rivers
Rev. J.L. Posey, pastor of First Praise Missionary Baptist Church in Cairo.

Between Two Rivers offers enticing glimpses of Cairo’s folklife, including Shemwell’s Barbecue, a riverside fish market, the music of the Soul Phonics, and the contrasting yet related styles of preaching and gospel music heard at First Praise Missionary Baptist Church and Mighty Rivers Regional Worship Center.  (One fascinating topic not mentioned in the film is the town’s relatively new black Jewish community.)

The soundtrack consists largely of an original score by southern Illinois folk musician Kurt Tietz, along with contributions by other regional musicians and excerpts from several of the numerous folk and popular songs that refer to Cairo.  Music complements the film’s visual content effectively.

The non-linear, fragmentary form of Between Two Rivers successfully underscores themes that pervade various facets of Cairo’s culture and periods in its history.  Still, a lack of strict chronological and topical contiguity, might disorient viewers who unfamiliar with the subject, at least until they have seen enough of the film to settle in.

Both Harry Lee Williams and Jay Manus have generally favorable opinions of Between Two Rivers and said that the community’s response seems to be largely positive. Not surprisingly, however, Williams and Manus wish the film had devoted proportionally more attention to the community’s positive traits and positive spirit.

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan/Between Two Rivers
The population of Cairo has declined to 2,900 and a third of the residents live in poverty.

I concur with that wish even though I have little first-hand experience with Cairo. I can claim identification with it only insofar as I am from southern Illinois and Cairo is the place that is, in some sense, most emblematic of our region.Yet Cairo’s identity transcends its region. General Grant established his headquarters there when the Civil War erupted.  Huckleberry Finn and Jim made it their initial destination. Thurgood Marshall represented African American schoolteachers there.  As Stace England observes, “The entire American experience was encapsulated in this town.”

Have the various manifestations of attention that Cairo has received from outsiders like me in recent years – the well-intentioned, ill-fated Ace of Cups nonprofit coffee shop, “Greetings from Cairo, Illinois” a 2005 recording by Stace England, and Between Two Rivers – actually benefitted the community?

Manus told me that the answer is “yes and no.”  He said that media attention has generated interest in Cairo and its historical significance among people within a 100-mile radius.  Additionally, a 2000 Time cover story about communities along the Mississippi, including Cairo, helped civic leaders obtain grants for historic preservation and infrastructure improvements.

Manus added, however, that although such funding is helpful, it is difficult for a community such as Cairo to rebuild its business sector without substantial private investment.  Without a well-established business sector, the ability of such a town to derive economic benefits from tourism is limited, even if it has the cultural resources necessary to generate it.

Resident Harry Lee Williams hopes that such productions as Between Two Rivers will cause state and federal officials to understand both Cairo’s need for assistance and its potential for success.

“If you start talking about our government, our state government, we don’t exist in the state of Illinois when you get past Carbondale and Marion, and we’re part of the state, and it’s like we’re foreigners,” he says in the film.  “It’s almost like we’ve been left behind.”

(For many people present at the screening, Williams’s comment surely resonated poignantly with an announcement made several days before in which the director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget openly admitted that Governor Pat Quinn’s decision to pursue closure of the Tamms Correctional Center, 19 miles north of Cairo and within the same county, was based partly on its being “a long way from Chicago.”)

One of the shotgun houses being restored in Cairo.
Contributions from beyond the community might well be valuable in various ways and should not be denigrated, but Cairo’s future will ultimately depend on its own citizens, who, as Manus emphasized to me, could have left when conditions seemed to be spiraling downward in the 1970s but chose to stay and still “go to work every day with smiles on their faces.”

They know from experience that with daunting challenges, the best reasons for optimism often lie in the pursuit of goals that are both admirable and attainable: conducting athletic programs that bring black and white young people together and give them guidance and motivation; restoring shotgun houses; marketing barbecue, music, and architecture to cultural tourists; reintroducing emergency medical services years after the hospital’s demise.

That why, when Tyquesha Cleaves told the filmmakers “I want to be a judge” applause broke out at Cairo Junior/Senior High School.

Matthew Meacham teaches cultural anthropology at Southwestern Illinois College’s Granite City Campus.

 

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