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Sundown Towns - Why Black people don't live in rural Northern USA

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Old 07-05-2007, 11:21 AM   #1
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Sundown Towns - Why Black people don't live in rural Northern USA

Truth & Reconciliation, Part II: James Loewen on Sundown Towns

Monday, July 02, 2007


Sara @ Orcinus

As the statistics here show, lynching was largely (though not entirely) a Southern phenomenon. But the North and West had other -- more subtle but no less devastating -- ways of dealing with their own African-American populations -- which is why sociologist James Loewen's two presentations on the phenomenon of sundown towns formed an interesting counterpoint to Sherrilyn Ifill's talk discussed below.

If you think the town you grew up in didn't have a race problem because either a) it wasn't in the South, or b) it was all white, Loewen -- the author of "Sundown Towns" and an active Unitarian himself -- has news for you.

"When I started researching this subject, I expected to find three types of sundown towns," Loewen recalled. "I expected to find small towns that were all-white because they'd expelled their black populations; suburbs that were all-white because they excluded blacks (and usually Asians and Jews, as well) from the very beginning; and then a third class of places that were all-white simply because African-Americans never got around to coming there.

"And what I discovered was that this third class is virtually non-existent. If you're an American who grew up in an all-white neighborhood, you need to realize that it was, almost certainly, all-white by intentional design."

There was a time when there were very few cities in America that didn't have a significant black population. "Between 1863 and 1890, they did live everywhere," Loewen asserts. Freed slaves spread far and wide throughout America, seeking to put down roots in places Jim Crow couldn't reach them. But reach them it did: within just a couple of generations, these towns began systematically harassing their black populations in a wide variety of ways designed to get them to move elsewhere.

"Between 1890 and 1940, there came what I call "the great retreat," said Loewen. Throughout the west and north, small towns and large cities -- some as large as St. Louis and Omaha -- expelled their African-American populations. In a nod to the conference venue, he mentioned that Oregon's history was particularly heinous: "I don't think there was a town in the state that wasn't a sundown town," Loewen noted. "The only place in the state you could live if you were black was in the center of downtown Portland."

The term "sundown town" refers to the signs that some of these towns put at their city limits, which typically said things like "Whites Only After Dark." (Some of them were far less polite.) However, most sundown towns didn't bother with overt signage: my own hometown of Bishop, CA never actually put up signs; but the police and certain other citizens made it their business to confront black visitors and advise them of the town's policies regarding their presence overnight. Innkeepers refused to rent them lodging as late at the 1980s. (And if you think sundowning was just out in the sticks, note that this was happening just four hours up the highway from LA.)

Loewen, who encourages anyone with details about specific sundown towns to register their stories at his website, ticks off names and places in a rapid-fire staccato. Pierce City, MO drove out its black population in 1901. Tulsa drove out two-thirds of its black community 1908. Norman, OK followed suit in 1912 -- Loewen recalls that a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma hire an all-black band for a party; found it had run afoul of the new sundown law; and had to cancel the dance and pay to put the band on the next train out of town so they wouldn't face police harassment. Viana, IL didn't go sundown until 1954 -- which led to a riot in which houses were destroyed. Anna, IL drove out its African-American population in 1909, and is still all white to this day.

There are regional wrinkles to the pattern. "I expected to find maybe 10 sundown towns in Illinois, and maybe 50 across the US," said Loewen. Instead, he's found over 500 in Illinois alone -- and estimates that there may well be over 10,000 across the US. The movement was apparently strongest in Illinios, Indiana, and Ohio; and weakest in the South. He's only found six sundown towns in Mississippi. "Sundown towns are rare in the south, particularly the 'traditional south,' he notes.

In the west, sundowning campaigns often included the Chinese as well. "The Chinese were almost 20% of Idaho in the 1880 census," Loewen recounts. "But in the mid-1880s, they were driven from Wyoming, Idaho, rural California, Seattle (though that lasted less than a week), and Tacoma (more permanently). Humboldt, California drove them out in the late 1880s; and the town didn't have another Chinese resident until the 1960s."

In small towns, it's typical for people to swear that sundowning happened after some kind of ordinance was passed -- though Loewen finds it remarkable that, even though he's looked, he's never found a single town that actually has such an ordinance recorded on the books. Nor has he found deliberations on a sundown law reflected in the minutes of any city or county meeting. Still, it's clear that city resources were often brought to bear to enforce this extra-legal intention. Loewen showed a slide of a "6 o'clock siren" mounted on a city water tower, which everybody in town knew had been installed to announce the curfew on blacks in town every evening. "That's city government in action," he noted. "You don't put up a thing like that on city property without somebody's approval." In other towns, the job of enforcing this unwritten law fell to the police force.

As the Portland example demonstrates, most of the African-Americans displaced by sundowning were left with nowhere to go but the inner cities. And so it happened that sundowning in small towns and suburbs across the country gave rise to the inner-city ghettos of the 20th century. And this, in turn, created an entirely new flavor of sundown town: the covenanted suburb to which white city residents fled in response.

"Most large cities had -- and many still have -- sundown neighborhoods," Loewen pointed out. "Many suburban developments, starting around 1905, were built with legal restrictions to ensure that only whites would ever live there. Often, city governments passed laws requiring that sundown deeds be included in any new subdivision they approved." By the 1950s, federal housing policy further reinforced these covenants by requiring developers to include them as a condition for federal funding.

Loewen recommended the 1947 film "Gentlemen's Agreement," which centers on the agreement by which the city of Darien, CT covenanted to kept out Jews and blacks. "And it was very effective," notes Loewen: the 1950 census found 200 African-Americans in Darien -- all of whom were live-in domestic help.

The interesting thing about all this, says Loewen, is that there are strong inverse correlations between sundown neighborhoods and the relative economic health of a region. "Detroit is an economic disaster zone. It's also among the most segregated cities in America. All five of the Grosse Pointe communities were founded as sundown suburbs, for example." This pattern, he says, recurs: ethnic vitality correlates with economic vitality virtually everywhere in the country, and cities that remain segregated do so at peril to their own well-being.

The practice of sundowning began to wind down around 1970, as fair housing laws were passed from the federal level on down, opening the nation's housing stock to all qualified buyers, regardless of race. However, Loewen says, it still lives on in Sunbelt cities catering to retirees from the Northeast with a sundown proposition; and towns (like Darien today) in which the police still pull African-Americans over for "driving while black."

Loewen, like Ifill, is hopeful that we've reached a point where we can begin to deal openly with this history, and begin to move past it. To that end, he offered a second talk -- a workshop filled with specific suggestions that individuals, groups, and communities can use to begin the process of truth and reconciliation where sundowning is concerned. Those recommendations will be the topic of the next post.
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