On 01 January 1863, with a single stroke of a pen, Republican President Abraham Lincoln signed an Executive Order, ‘The Emancipation Proclamation’, and forever changed the Federal and legal status of more than three million enslaved people in designated areas of the South from slave to free. However, the mere signing of a document cannot and does not alleviate people being held in slavery if they have nowhere to go.
Fortunately two factors were working simultaneously to assist those three million people in their pursuit; the Civil War was being fought on southern soil with regiments of Union Soldiers scouring the countryside with orders to assist runaway slaves, and the establishment of ‘Camp Defiance’ at Cairo, Illinois, a very small town located at the southern tip of Illinois that aside from being a Union stronghold during the Civil War became the staging point for the Underground Railroad utilizing Union Troops, river barges, and the now defunct Illinois Central Railroad.
The operation was fairly simply, and completed in board daylight without much fanfare or protest. Slaves fleeing the South were picked up by Union Troops, and put aboard flat boats bound for Cairo where they were offloaded, and transferred to trains heading to Chicago. From there they could travel freely to Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, or they could remain in Cairo if they so choose as it was a northern State, and many did thinking after the war they would return home or claim homestead land in Illinois that was being forecast.
This act of selfless courage to assist and assure the Black race endured has been forgotten over the years, but the undeniable truth is a white Republican President, white Union Soldiers, an early Illinois Railroad manned by predominately white workers, and a small Union Camp united to insure free slaves would indeed savor freedom. For this gift no payment or recompense was asked or expected. At that time, it was just the right thing to do, and the Union Soldiers, the Illinois Central Railroad, and ‘Camp Defiance’ were in the best position to accomplish the feat.
Although, it has been over a century since the Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865, and Operation Freedom was accomplished to aid runaway slaves, in June 1998, Cairo City workers unearthed storage bins under the sidewalk along the 600 block of Levee Street, the site of the old Illinois Central Railroad Depot. In doing so, they unwittingly uncovered the platform of the Underground Railway that boldly operated in that location, yet as if struck down by a migrant thought, Blacks have organized themselves into a militia to tell us something known in 1863, ‘Black Lives Matter’. Here’s a novel thought. We already know. Our forefathers invented that gig.
Please vote for freedom.