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Remembering James Ivers: A Look Back On The Story Of A Slave-Turned-Soldier In The Civil War

Lindsey Grojean/KRCU

For this episode of Going Public, we talk with Denise Lincoln, a local historian who played a large part in the renaming of the courthouse lawn to Ivers Square and in establishing the United States Colored Troops Memorial which will receive its dedication on Saturday.

CH: Could you tell us about who it was named after and his importance in local history.

DL: You know a name is a name, and especially when you roll back history to enslavement times, a name is very, very specific to what's real and what's not of this time. So if you want to know who is Ivers of Ivers Square we have named and designated the square in honor of James and Harriet Ivers, but indeed, they didn't have a surname until the end of slave times. But they took the last name of their last enslaver John Ivers, Jr.

CH: Was that a common thing for a slave?

DL: That was one of the dehumanizing aspects of enslavement - that you're denied pretty much your personhood. Your existence was for the will and and at command of your master to be and do what you could for him. And so, yes. When James, who had been owned by John Ivers Jr... and later, John Ivers Jr. also bought Harriet, his wife, and the children that their union had already produced, bringing the family together, which was an unusual thing of the time. Instead of breaking families apart, he actually brought them together. But when enlistment opened for men of color in Cape Girardeau, the Army wants you to have a first name and a last name. And in the course of the study that I've looked at, over 200 men who enlisted in Cape Girardeau, it was pretty typical that they, maybe by default, or you know just the pressure of the moment when they stood in front of the enlistment officer, they needed a first name and a last name. And so most of them chose the last name of their last enslaver.

CH: So with that many enlistments, why James Ivers?

DL: Why James. Well, that's right. And it's a little disconcerting, maybe, to those that aren't named and have as much a prominent role. But in the research, James had such an unmistakable footprint in the City of Cape Girardeau for his whole life. He was born in the area, enslaved for his first 36 years in the area. He was 36 when he enlisted. The woman he chose to marry in this custom of slaves, Harriet, was also. The both of them, their existence was within about a three or four-block area of Ivers Square. That was their life. That was their terrain. He left with the men that deployed in September, said farewell to his family, and actually never saw them again.

CH: And so it's only been named that for a couple of years, correct? Because my question was going to be: Why hadn't we thought of putting up a statue of Ivers before now?

DL: It's really a story that wants to tell itself. And I just happened to have my radar on, and have the time and the interest, and the inspiration that the story wants to tell - to bring it forward. And as I've shared it, as I brought it home, a lot of my research is way out in Washington D.C. at the National Archives. And going through primary sources to make sure we're dealing with truth here, you know, and document it, not just a fantasy or a made up story. But these are these are humans in time.