Column: Denise Lincoln: Cape Girardeau’s own Juneteenth story (6/11/22)

Emancipation Day was regularly celebrated by the Black community in this region until the 1920s. Newspaper accounts mention picnics, oration programs, baseball games, musical concerts and riverboat excursions to mark the varieties of celebrations. This band performed in Austin, Texas, to celebrate Emancipation Day in 1900. Cape Girardeau enjoyed entertainment performed by similar bands in the same era. Photo attributed to The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas.

Submitted photo

Juneteenth National Independence Day calls us to remember and celebrate freedom from enslavement of African American folks. Named a federal holiday in 2021, Juneteenth will be will be celebrated locally in a day-long event at Ivers Square on June 18.

June happens to be a significant month in the history of freedom among Cape Girardeau’s Black community. On Thursday, June 18, 1863, Black men were allowed to enlist in the Federal Union Army at the Post of Cape Girardeau. Forty-two volunteers enlisted that day at the Common Pleas Courthouse (now our City Hall). Each inscribed his enlistment papers with an “X” and swore an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America and … to serve honestly and faithfully against all enemies or opposes …”

Months before, large numbers of contraband, runaways and freedom-seeking enslaved men, women and children gathered in Cape Girardeau. Boldly rejecting the oppression of uncompensated labor, family separation and the sale of their bodies like farm animals, they self-emancipated, hoping the Union Army occupying the town would protect them. Protections were tested when soldiers turned away angry enslavers arriving to reclaim their slaves.

Growing numbers of unescorted people of color raised concern and evoked sharp differences of opinion between the city residents and their military occupiers. City folk blamed a lack of consistent policy among the changing post commanders, each of whom handled the invasion of freedom-seekers differently. Everyone, including the refugees, was uncertain about their status and their future. Fugitive slaves came and stayed, in the hope that the fraying political conflicts would eventually reorder or severe slavery’s bonds. Refugees found shelter in every shack and rundown house in town the Army could find to put them in. Many idle the days away, unsure what to do with their quasi-freedom.

Not all were idle. Many worked the stables, dug fortifications and rifle pits, and served as valets. Women cooked, laundered clothes and linens, or served as matrons at the hospital. None were given military credit for their service, until June 1863.

In all, from 1863-1864, about 243 Black enlistees started their military service from Post Cape Girardeau. Each thing a risky, unproven path which promised, but did not guarantee, freedom. They left behind mothers, fathers, spouses and children to navigate the last days of enslavement without their presence and protection. The enlistment of their men technically offered families freedom, but the system lacked support to sustain themselves. Many of the Cape Girardeau enlistees sacrificed their lives in service, including James Ivers, for whom the courthouse’s public square was named in 2019.

Military service actually delayed the experience of true freedom for these men, obliging most of them to service for three full years. Many died without knowing true freedom. Each soldier’s hope and courage is cause for celebration. Liberation became a reality and the Union was preserved, in large part, due to the service of 186,000 men of color joining the fight for freedom.

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