2019 Newsmakers: Denise Lincoln

To understand why Denise Lincoln is a Newsmaker, you have to know the twists and turns that led her to where she is today.

From 13-week stints in cities across the U.S. for her husband Doug's job as an ultrasound technician to what she thought was a mistake the day she opened the wrong microfilm drawer at the National Archives while doing research on her family's history, it almost seems as though the universe put the African American story of Southeast Missouri into her hands to help tell.

Luckily, Lincoln has never been one to back down from a challenge.

"During my time as the director at a family resource center in South Cape Girardeau, there was a group of senior women who came every week for a potluck lunch. And they challenged me," Lincoln says. "They didn't much like me at first because I came in with big ideas about changing things up, and I got a lot of pushback -- kind of, 'Why are you here, and what are you trying to do?' But I stuck with it and tried to understand what their issues were. And to this day, that group of women is a touchstone to help center me."

One day when Lincoln was finally getting into a groove at the resource center, her husband said he wanted something different. This change led Lincoln to say goodbye to her job, to Cape Girardeau and the ladies at the resource center in order to join her husband on a journey across the U.S. setting up a new home in a new city every 13 weeks or so.

With spare time on her hands during their travels, Lincoln, who is an avid learner, began researching her family's history. Through this, she found out her family was once slave owners -- a history at odds with Lincoln's core beliefs.

Not knowing what to do with the information, she happened upon a genealogy center seminar while in Alexandria, Virginia. At that seminar, the speaker issued a challenge to all of the attendees to not sweep slavery under the rug, but instead turn their energies to naming and telling the stories of the people generationally who served the family and helped them grow their wealth.

Lincoln took that thought and went to the National Archives to do more research on her family. Research involving countless hours of reading record after record painstakingly captured on microfilm.

Then one morning, she returned to the microfilm cabinet and mistakenly went to the cabinet to the right of the one she was looking for. In that cabinet, her eye caught a label on one of the reels that said "Cape Girardeau."

Not knowing exactly what she was looking at, Lincoln's curiosity was piqued, and through the use of military, probate and public records, she began to piece together the stories of the men, women and children of Southeast Missouri who transitioned from slavery to freedom during and following the Civil War, ultimately deciding her goal was to put the family history into the hands of their descendants. She returned to Cape Girardeau and continued to tell that narrative through oral presentations, discussions with other community members and a research piece that is still in development.

"The narratives of all of the families are so compelling," Lincoln says.

One of the histories Lincoln was able to trace was that of Harriet and James Ivers, a former slave from Cape Girardeau who enlisted in the Union Army. While Ivers was just one of many, his name became a representation of Cape Girardeau's acknowledgment of the community's African American history. In 2017, the public square at 44 N. Lorimier was renamed from Courthouse Park to Ivers Square, and in 2019, a statue representing Ivers and all of the other people who worked as slaves was erected and dedicated in the park.

However, this is not Lincoln's story, and she is quick to tell you that.

"I see myself as one of many who are carriers of this story," Lincoln says. "And it's a story I'm happy to help tell."