For more than 165 years, the Courthouse Park has served as a gathering place for the community of Cape Girardeau. Today that means coming together for music concerts, weddings, and community events. Prior to 2017, most were unaware that the same location was also a place of deep despair, courage, and self-determination for men and women of color.
In June 2017, the Cape Girardeau City Council designated the public space around the Common Pleas Courthouse as Ivers Square, honoring the memories of Private James Ivers, 56th U.S. Colored Infantry, and his wife, Harriet. Officially renaming the public square, formerly known simply as Courthouse Park, was the first step in acknowledging the participation and sacrifice of more than two hundred men and their families enslaved in the region, who voluntarily enlisted between 1863 and 1864, to serve in the Union Army.
The second piece of the project was aptly completed on June 8, 2019, 156 years from the month of the first enlistment of United States Colored Troop soldier at Cape Girardeau. The third and final casting of a USCT statue, created by sculptor, Roy Butler, was formally dedicated and unveiled in Ivers Square. The statue honors and is symbolic of the USCT soldiers that enlisted in the city 1863 to 1864. The project, in its entirety, sought to complete our regional Civil War legacy of patriotic, sacrificial devotion with a 21st century installation of a statue depicting a United States Colored Infantry soldier side by side with two other Civil War memorials in the square: a fountain and statue dedicated in 1911 to fallen Union soldiers, and a monument to the Confederate soldiers of Southeast Missouri, originally placed at the entrance to the traffic bridge over the Mississippi in 1931 but moved to the courthouse grounds in 1995. The accompanying interpretive signage place the history of the two existing monuments in the context of their time, thereby allowing contemporary visitors to understand the larger story of Civil War interpretation, and to gain a broader understanding of the complicated history of Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri.
The newest statue, a lifelike depiction of a courageous and confident African American soldier, provides context for an under-recognized history to be included in the larger narrative of our city’s history. The interpretive signage restores the names and personal histories of the volunteer soldiers of color who fought for freedom during the Civil War.
The statue, at its historic location, provides opportunity for ongoing dialogue regarding the role and legacy of slavery in our region at a particularly poignant moment in history. These men embraced freedom by volunteering to serve in the military, motivated by the hope of future freedom for their families and their community. The statuary art provides new opportunities for community engagement as we re-examine the impact of slavery and freedom in the region. It allows residents and visitors alike to expand their understanding of Cape Girardeau’s African American history, the interplay of slavery and freedom in Missouri, and the history of the Civil War in the western theater.
The lack of diversity in historical sculptural monuments is widely acknowledged, as is the lack of representation by minorities in America’s public spaces. The USCT statue erected in Ivers Square acknowledges and celebrates the historic contribution of Cape Girardeau’s African American community and adds balance to the Civil War story and memorials placed at our city’s most historic site by previous generations. We cannot fully understand our past or present without acknowledgement of the role slavery played in the history and development of our community. Likewise, overlooking the story of men who risked escape from enslavement across the region to join the fight for their own freedom and the preservation of the United States has left many people in the community with an incomplete understanding of our history. The statue provides a visual and interpretive account of the men and families of color who participated on the side of the Union Army on par with the memorials of previous generations remembering the sacrifice of all Civil War soldiers.
The importance of this project and its impact is immeasurable. By renaming the courthouse grounds in honor of a formerly enslaved African American soldier and his widow, and erecting a memorial in honor of the more than 200 African Americans who defied their enslaved status to enlist in the Union army, our community has taken some small but important steps toward celebrating the values of triumph in the face of adversity, the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality, and honoring the contributions of all our community’s citizens. By working together, public historians, historic preservationists, and members of the community at large can help bring about the kinds of understanding we need to develop if we are ever going to come to terms with the difficult histories found in all our communities.