Commercial Avenue is really where Cairo’s history turns dark and tragic. The desolation that dominates the lower east side of the peninsula shows in the photo above. Though several blocks away, I could capture a clear shot of the remaining buildings on what was the busiest street in Cairo from Washington Avenue. There is nothing to block the view.
It’s shocking to see my friends’ photos from five, or even two years ago. So much is gone, it is hard to believe.
Most of the town is wood, but in the downtown area, it turns to brick; the original wealth of the city shows in its now abandoned buildings.
Back to Commercial Avenue itself; the intense bigotry and racism that dominates the history of this city since the Civil War, when slaves fled to what was the closest free territory in the North, has in many ways defined Cairo. The despicable lynching of Will James, an African-American, which occurred at 8th and Commerical Avenue encapsulates the hatred which ripped this town apart. Crowds were estimated to being close to the entire population of the town at the time in 1909. These buildings would have been lit that night by street lights shining down on the fires and mobs of people. What kind of town is so depraved?
By the 1960’s, the African American population had grown tired of living in fear and subjugation to discrimination, and boycotted all businesses in town that refused to hire or serve them. The logical outcome, the ending of segregation, never came in Cairo. Instead, the town’s businesses closed one by one rather than submit to equality. Now Nature passes judgment on the buildings that once housed those businesses, and they are all receiving a death sentence. Very few remain, and I doubt they will be around much longer.
One street off of Commercial survives relatively intact, with the Gem Theater still standing. But the buildings are all vacant for the most part.