James Ivers: Former Slave and Enlisted Union Soldier Memorialized in Cape Girardeau

Jun 16, 2017

James Ivers, a former slave enlisted as a Union Army soldier during the Civil War in Cape Girardeau. He died shortly after leaving behind his wife Harriet, a former slave, their children and his legacy. And now decades later the Cape Girardeau City Council voted to memorialize him by renaming the historic Common Pleas Courthouse Park to Ivers Square. Dr. Steven Hoffman, professor of history and coordinator of the historic preservation program at Southeast Missouri State University spoke with KRCU's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson about the life of James Ivers.

Interview Highlights


Hoffman: It came to be out of a process of thinking about memorialization and particularly the lack of memorialization for the African American community in Cape Girardeau. The issue first came up when I was speaking with a colleague of mine, Dr. Wayne Bowen in the department of history and he's also on the [Cape Girardeau] city council. They were in the process of naming a street in the new industrial park. And so, it occurred to him were their streets named after African Americans. We couldn't think of any. We couldn't think of any public buildings. There had been a school named after an African American educator, but that school burned down. And so, we started thinking then what were the opportunities. The city doesn't build new streets very often, but you know we've been having roundabouts and kind of what would be an authentic kind of naming opportunity. And at the same time who would be an appropriate person from the community. I think that a lot of times you see naming opportunities for national figures. A lot of communities have a Martin Luther King Blvd for example, and I think that's a great thing. But Martin Luther King although he influenced what happened in Cape Girardeau, he never actually came to Cape Girardeau. And so, we wanted something more authentic. We knew about Denise Lincoln's research into the African American Civil War soldiers, and so we started having conversations with her about what their experience was and try to identify someone who had connections to Cape Girardeau and that led us to James Ivers who was an enslaved person here in Cape Girardeau. He worked. [He] had a family. Initially like many slave families his wife was owned by a different owner. They were married. They had children, but they lived separately. They were eventually united prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. But during the war Cape Girardeau became a Union outpost and the [Common Pleas Courthouse] was a Provost Marshal's headquarters. And when the opportunity for black enlistment became available Mr. Ivers on the very first day signed up and joined the Union Army in order to fight for his freedom. And we thought that that was a great emblematic act. Both of individual courage, but also representative for the community as a whole.


Lewis-Thompson: So what happens to James Ivers after the war has ended?


Hoffman: Well unfortunately for James Ivers he does not see the end of the war. James Ivers takes his freedom into his own hands and he walks into that courthouse and he enlists, and he then goes into service and unfortunately he dies of disease, which in the Civil War many many many people died of disease. So this was an unfortunate occurrence for him, but even though he dies in the war his story doesn't die. And that's part of what we really thought was powerful about this story and the representation that it holds for us for the contributions of the African American community. Because he wasn't just an individual. He was a husband and a father and he gave up the comfort of his family to enlist to fight for this freedom. And even though he died his wife was able to get a pension. In order to get that pension, she had to have the support of people in the community. Enslaved African Americans were not able to be married. And yet, there's a folk tradition of marriage and James and Harriet were married in that folk tradition and that was attested to by their previous owners. Harriet had people help her negotiate the process of getting a union soldier’s pension, and that process took quite a while, but it was successful. And then she was able to take the money that she got for the pension to purchase property here in Cape Girardeau over by the old  Second Baptist Church. And so, she bought a home and raised her family [and] was a contributing member of the community that helped shape Cape Girardeau in the post war years. So by naming the square James and Harriet Ivers square we really wanted to focus on the family. The individual courage, but also the family component of it, and the tenacity of African Americans to create a place for themselves even in a world that would enslave if it could.