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African American history in Cape Girardeau

Cape Girardeau’s rich African American history stretches back before cars, before paved streets, even before the town’s founding. In honor of African American History Month, we’re reflecting on a prominent person and place in Cape Girardeau’s past.  

Person: James Ivers

James lived in Cape Girardeau as an enslaved person prior to the start of the Civil War. His story appears unremarkable at first glance: husband of Harriet, father of three.

James and Harriet were owned by different families and lived apart for the first six years of their marriage, until the entire family was purchased by John Ivers. Three years later, African American men were allowed to join the Union Army during the Civil War. James enlisted at the Common Pleas Courthouse the very first day he was allowed to, willing to sacrifice everything for freedom. And the cost was high, as James died of disease at a Union encampment in 1863.

After James’ death, Harriet was able to draw a pension from the Union Army. For a former slave, this was a great feat because enslaved couples did not receive an official marriage license. Instead, they were married in a folk tradition, which the Union honored. Harriet used the pension to purchase a home in Cape Girardeau, where she played a strong role in her community.

Ivers Square, located behind the Common Pleas Courthouse, is named in honor of this remarkable couple. Stroll through it while taking the African American History Driving Tour. You can grab a brochure at the VisitCape office or download it from our website.

Place: 38 N. Hanover St.

In the mid-19th century, Jim Crow laws made a trip through the South difficult for African American travelers. They often relied on the “Green Book,” a guidebook that listed hotels, restaurants and private homes where they were welcome to stay.

Cape Girardeau had its own section in the “Green Book” that listed three homes:

  • 408 S. Frederick St.
  • 38 N. Hanover St.
  • 422 North St.

The house at 38 N. Hanover still stands today – a two-story white home boasting a large front porch that no doubt welcomed hundreds of weary travelers, their stories of triumph, hardship and adventure still echoing off the walls. Remember, this is a private residence. 

View the full text of the “Green Book” here.

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