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Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen

From Maine to California, thousands of communities kept out African Americans (or sometimes Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, etc.) by force, law, or custom. These communities are sometimes called "sundown towns" because some of them posted signs at their city limits reading, typically, "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___."

Some towns are still all white on purpose. Their chilling stories have been joined more recently by the many elite (and some not so elite) suburbs like Grosse Pointe, MI, or Edina, MN, that have excluded nonwhites by "kinder gentler means."

When I began this research, I expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (my home state) and perhaps 50 across the country. Instead, I have found more than 440 in Illinois and thousands across the United States. This is their story; it is the first book ever written on the topic.

Sundown Towns in the United States

For more info, click on the link:

Fab: So what do y'all think about this???? Does the book sound on point?
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More on Sundown Towns, especially for those who may have a problem with the link I posted. Smile

Anyway, check it out:

Shining a light on sundown towns
Large number of whites-only communities surprised author

01:24 PM CST on Monday, November 7, 2005
By JEROME WEEKS / The Dallas Morning News

Vidor, Texas, is infamous for driving away black residents. Considered a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, Vidor has excluded African-Americans to the point of violence. It gained national notoriety in 1992-'93 by foiling a court-ordered desegregation of public housing in East Texas. The nine black people, including five children, who moved there were driven out by protests and threats.

And you may well be living in a similar community and not know it.

According to a new study, whites-only discrimination has prevailed in thousands of areas across the country, North and South. While Vidor is an extreme example, the same principle of whites-only residency has been in effect in other communities, not through outright threats but through local laws, social pressures, police harassment and land buyouts.

These are places such as Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Darien, Conn.

All of Idaho.

And Highland Park in Texas.

Such towns may even be in the majority among incorporated areas in America, says James W. Loewen in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.

That means thousands of segregated places that Dr. Loewen calls sundown towns because of the sign that used to stand outside a number of the worst (in some cases, well into the 1990s). It warned blacks not to stay after dark.

One critic has called the book "a hand grenade." But Dr. Loewen says he was as shocked as anyone by his data: "I came to this conclusion kicking and screaming."

Professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Dr. Loewen says in the '60s he knew of only three such towns.

So when he started researching the subject, he thought he might find 10 towns in his native Illinois, where he focused his study, and perhaps 50 nationwide.

His most recent tally is 472 confirmed sundown towns.

Just in Illinois.

A sundown town, by Dr. Loewen's definition, is a community of more than 1,000 people that has excluded blacks for decades to such a degree that they have made up less than 0.1 percent of the population. And this exclusion has been deliberate, whether a "sundown" sign was posted or not.

It's often hard to pin down whether it was by design, so Dr. Loewen doesn't designate a place a sundown town until he finds a paper trail (laws, newspaper stories). But he also relies on oral history, personal reports that verify known facts.

This caused one University of Illinois historian, John Lynn, to object to Dr. Loewen's methods.

But oral history is a "tried-and-true method" for professional historians, Dr. Loewen replies, especially when it comes to touchy subjects like race. Phone threats and Realtors' suggestions, after all, aren't usually written down.

Dr. Loewen has even had to suss out some cases. Census reports, for example, may show a hundred black residents living in a town, but the breakdown is mostly adult women, no kids and few men. It's a gender and age ratio that rarely happens.

Conclusion: They're maids.

Many Americans growing up in all-white or nearly all-white communities assume the local racial makeup "just happened." Black persons just never made it there or didn't find it attractive, preferring instead to live in the crowded, impoverished county next door

What we don't realize, Dr. Loewen argues, is that Census data show that after the Civil War, blacks moved just about everywhere in the country. "There were Republican towns in the North that actually recruited former slaves to live there," he says.

Consequently, we can track black Americans' subsequent exile out of many areas. Under Reconstruction, racial equality improved vastly after the Civil War, but when the backlash set in, it was nationwide, and it was harsh. Dr. Loewen dubs this the Great Retreat, as rural blacks were forced to cluster for safety in some two dozen Northern ghettos where many remain.

There is certainly evidence for the retreat, says Nicholas Lehmann, Columbia University's dean of journalism and author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. When black Americans left Mississippi for Chicago, they didn't move to Chicago. They moved to specific communities in the area, he says, the few that would let them live there.

This was another surprise for Dr. Loewen. Sundown towns are actually rare in the traditional South (this doesn't include Texas or Arkansas because those states were highly contested between Union and Confederate). In the belt from Louisiana through the Carolinas, whites saw no reason to drive away their cheap labor. So contrary to the popular notion of Northern enlightenment, Dr. Loewen says, most sundown towns are actually in the Midwest and North – and in "disputed" areas like Texas. According to Census data, the most segregated city in the country today is Milwaukee.

To illustrate the prevalence of such communities, Sundown Towns recounts how in the mid-20th century, published guidebooks, such as Travelguide: Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation, helped black motorists pick their way past them. Some sundown towns even had sirens to blow a daily warning.

"I couldn't believe that when I heard about it," Dr. Loewen says. "But it wasn't just a single place."

In other words, all of this was not caused by a small number of wild-eyed racists. When these towns were set up, most white residents "either approved of the policy of exclusion or said nothing to stop its enforcement."

It is hard to see how anything this common wouldn't be better known. But Dr. Loewen points to the Tulsa riot in 1921, when many of the town's whites tried to destroy an entire black community. It didn't become widely known until the early '90s, when it first received media attention. And in 1923, there was similar mob violence in Rosewood, Fla., the subject of the 1997 film, Rosewood. Sundown Towns cites dozens of other towns where black residents were attacked by bombings and burnings: Slocum, Texas; Okemah, Okla.; Sheridan, Ark.; Decatur, Ind.

And Dallas. In 1950-51, during a severe housing shortage, a dozen bombings in South Dallas were aimed at terrorizing blacks moving into what was then a white neighborhood. Two half brothers were arrested but not convicted.

Yet no single history, Dr. Loewen says, has been written about all of these events.

But haven't race relations in this country gotten better? A special report from the 2000 U. S. Census did find that residential segregation in metropolitan areas declined between 1980 and 2000.

"We had slavery once, and now we don't," says Dr. Loewen. And discrimination in home sales, public housing, hiring and education is unconstitutional.

But this popular notion of America's march of progress, he says, ignores the complete lack of progress we made in desegregating housing until the 1960s. For decades, it was federal policy to exclude blacks from the loans that let whites afford suburban homes. In effect, whites benefited from a vastly larger federal housing program than any inner-city project.

This meant that when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, it was too late. White suburbia, for the most part, was already built.

To this day, Dr. Loewen says, whites-only towns and suburbs are considered highly appealing or "aspirational." Twelve of Worth magazine's 50 richest towns in 2000 were all-white.

And this is not because blacks cannot afford homes there. Typically, the towns were all-white first, Dr. Loewen points out, and then the wealthy moved in.

Because this racial division taints so much of our landscape, Dr. Loewen sees it as a source of some of America's persistent social ills, including the gap in academic achievement between the races (Americans overwhelmingly strive to get their children into well-off, white suburban schools) and our separation into race-specific enclaves (Hispanics or Asians with a third-grade education are more likely to live among whites than a black person with a Ph.D.).

But perhaps the most vexing problem caused by our racially divided real estate is the basic split in our thinking. What Sundown Towns provides is evidence why black and white Americans recall history in starkly different ways, why the events in New Orleans were quickly viewed in opposing images: blacks as looters or blacks as victims. And why some whites are irked by the persistence of race as a crucial factor even as many blacks are aware that the choice of where they're living was until recently hardly a choice at all.
Here's a local story from the Des Moines Register on this...

Racism lurking at sundown in Iowa?

An author includes New Market, Ia., in a book that reveals how old laws forbade blacks from being in town after dark


January 22, 2006

No African-Americans live in New Market. Only two live in Taylor County.

This may not be news in Iowa. After all, one-fourth of Iowa's 99 counties have 15 or fewer blacks. Ten counties have fewer than 10.

Many residents of Taylor County say it is a logical development, part of the overall trend that has emptied the rural Iowa landscape. There are no jobs for blacks in the county. Why would they relocate there?

But author James Loewen doesn't buy it. He says the small numbers or total absence of black residents in the rural areas and suburbs of the Midwest is no accident. It's the fallout of a practice that began in the 1890s when thousands of communities across the country established towns for whites only, because blacks were seen as unfit or inferior to whites.

In scores of towns in the Midwest, Loewen found, ugly signs were posted that warned blacks: "N-----, Don't let the sun go down on you" here. Loewen was told that the town of Manning had such a sign. The town has no blacks among its nearly 1,500 residents. Jeff Clothier of Colfax remembers seeing the sign in his grandmother's photo collection, which was thrown away in her later years.

"She said she thought someone had put up that sign and that it wasn't done officially by anyone representing the town," Clothier said.

Other communities, including at least two in Taylor County, had city ordinances barring blacks from the town after dark. In more extreme cases, they were chased out of town with suspicious fires, schoolyard beatings and law enforcement harassment.

"Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism" (The New Press, $29.95) is said to be the first book to chronicle the practice. Most would assume this systematic racism took place in the Deep South, where it was actually rare.

But in the Midwest, as many as 15,000 towns could have been sundown towns.

"I wanted the subtitle to be 'The History of Ethnic Cleansing,' but the New Press wouldn't let me," said Loewen, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. "Most Americans think ethnic cleansing means killing everybody. It's not. It's driving people out."

The sundown era began in 1890 after the Wounded Knee massacre changed the mind-set that it was OK to discriminate, Loewen said. That was followed by a Mississippi law removing blacks from citizenship and the U.S. Senate's failure to pass a bill for fair elections in 1890.

From 1890 to 1940, blacks were kept out of towns in Illinois and Iowa and other Midwest states. The author identified a subregion of counties along the Missouri-Iowa border that he calls a sundown region.

In Iowa's southern tier counties, Loewen said, residents feared an influx of blacks coming from Missouri after the Civil War and took steps to keep them out.

Decades later, the effects are still evident, he said. Many sundown towns remain nearly all-white today.

"Who knows how many sundown towns are in Iowa?" said Loewen, who added that despite six years of research, he couldn't travel to every town.

If he had time, he said, he could uncover many more. Looking at census numbers, Loewen identified towns with nine or fewer blacks and talked to local historians, genealogists and longtime residents. Many openly told him of past practices, even though the ordinances were hard to find.

"The fact that everyone knows it exists has the same effect as having it in written form," he said.

He identified New Market, Ia., as a sundown town.

A trip to Taylor County would show why.

TAYLOR COUNTY, sitting on the Missouri border in southwest Iowa, is one of Iowa's smallest counties, with 6,689 residents.

New Market, population 456, has little left on its main street, although two employers have erected new buildings and there is still hope for the future.

There are no blacks in New Market and, according to the 2000 census, just two in the county. Today, the Des Moines Sunday Register confirmed, at least three black students live in Taylor County. School officials in nearby Lenox say two black students are enrolled; Bedford officials count one. The students couldn't be reached for this story.

In 1880, there were 130 blacks in Taylor County.

Most people in town are familiar with the old sundown ordinance, although a search of city archives can't confirm it.

"My high school history teacher told me about it in 1985," said New Market Mayor Frank Sefrit. "He'd gone down and dug it up one day. I was embarrassed. But things have changed. I know my grandfather was racist, plain as day. But I'd say in the last 50 years, you don't see that kind of thing."

In fact, Loewen writes, there is evidence that the New Market ordinance had the force of law as late as the mid-1980s.

University of Northern Iowa history professor John Baskerville, who is black, told Loewen he was in a band that played in New Market.

According to Baskerville, the local sheriff notified City Council members at the concert that an ordinance prohibited a "colored" person from being in town after dark. At the time, the council members agreed to suspend the law "for the night."

"New Market's sundown ordinance went right back into effect the following night," Loewen writes.

Eva Fine, a member of the City Council at the time, said the ordinance was like many still on the books in small towns. People ignored it.

"We didn't think anything of it," she said.

Both she and Earl Lewis, also on the council in the mid-1980s, say they remember no move to overturn the ordinance. "It didn't happen," Lewis said.

The current Taylor County sheriff, Lonnie Weed, said law enforcement officials would technically have to enforce a city ordinance. "But something like that, no way I would enforce it."

City clerks in both Lenox and New Market say they, too, remember the sundown ordinances in their towns.

"Lenox was violently opposed to blacks. It was well-known," said Helen Janson, the president of the Taylor County Historical Society.

Ask old-timers playing cards at the community center in New Market, and there are knowing nods.

"One night, one slept in the old chicken brooding house over there," said Floyd Jobe, 80, pointing his hand of cards to the west. "They ran him out of town. Last I saw him, he was heading north. I talked to the guys that did it. It was about 40 or 50 years ago."

Jobe remembered another ugly incident. In Maryville, Mo., a few miles south across the border, Velma Colter, a 20-year-old schoolteacher, was killed in 1930. Raymond Gunn, 27, a black man, was accused of the murder.

While Gunn was being detained, a lynch mob took him to the schoolhouse where the teacher had been killed and burned him alive on the roof of the school as hundreds of spectators watched.

Such dramatic events often had a chilling effect that would last for decades, Loewen said.

After the killing, "a great many blacks left town," said Thomas Carneal, a retired history teacher at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

But the exodus of blacks predates the lynch mob, he said. Many had already moved to Omaha and Des Moines. Even today, blacks who attend the Maryville university often move away to seek better opportunities and black culture in other areas, he said.

OTHER HISTORIANS in Iowa agree with Loewen's documentation of subtle racism in Iowa, but argue that most of the movement away from the state was for economic reasons.

More blacks did live in rural Iowa once. In 1900, there were 325 black farmers. By the 1990s, there were only 33.

Other blacks worked on railroads or in hotels when small-town Iowa was thriving.

Hal Chase, who specializes in black history at Des Moines Area Community College and edited "Outside In: African-American History in Iowa," said the black population in Iowa did increase over the years, but the population settled in bigger Iowa cities for employment.

"But I wouldn't disagree that aversive white racism existed, rather than the kind you would see in Alabama or Texas," he said. "The thesis that active white racism drove people out "” you'll look hard for evidence of that in Iowa. But as far as not selling homes to blacks, restrictive covenants, railroad unions that didn't hire blacks "” that was real."

One black family from Taylor County tells a different story.

Adam and Martha Johnson were two of Iowa's early black farmers when they bought a farm in Taylor County near Gravity in the 1880s. From this farm, granddaughter Lulu Johnson was raised and later went on to earn a doctorate in history from the University of Iowa, one of the first black women in Iowa to do so.

"They remember having good experiences down there," said Kim Jackson of Des Moines. Lulu was her great-aunt. "They always went back for reunions."

Loewen says the double standard in Iowa was "tragic" because the state was progressive early on, passing an act to allow African-Americans the right to vote before the 15th Amendment passed.

"They did so because they thought it was right," he said. "Then many Iowa towns backslid and became all white on purpose. That's heartbreaking."

It remains a puzzle that Iowa counties with only a handful of blacks sit next to those with many. That was true historically, and it holds true today.

In Page County, directly west of Taylor County with its two black residents, there are 313. Some say it's because of the old coal mines that hired blacks decades ago near Clarinda. But the New Market area also had coal mines.

"Twenty years ago when I was doing research on coal mining towns, I could lay out a map and know which camps hired black miners and which didn't. It was like a checkerboard," said Dorothy Schwieder, an Iowa historian. "I couldn't find any reason to explain that."

LOEWEN CLAIMS the practices weren't accidental, and the attitudes prevail decades later.

Look no farther than Lenox.

Just 10 years ago, when Stanton met Lenox in a high school football game, a racial incident erupted.

Dave Burham, a biracial Stanton player, had recently moved to Iowa to live with his grandfather, Bobby Burham. The 15-year-old claimed he was beaten following a game and racial slurs were directed toward him.

"Dave is of mixed race," said Bobby Burham of his white daughter's son. "As he was leaving the field, fans had gathered at the exit. He had a Mohawk and someone yelled, 'Nice hair, n-----.' Dave had a sense of humor. He told them it was Velcro that kept his helmet on."

Then, his grandfather reports, he was pushed in the back; students and adults piled on top of him, kicking and swinging until the Stanton football coach noticed the mayhem and rescued him.

A year later, a Taylor County grand jury decided no charges would be filed. Athletic events were canceled between the two schools.

Burham asked his grandparents to drop the matter and played on the school's basketball team. He was booed by the opposing fans when he touched the ball, Burham recalls. His grandson moved back to Kansas City without finishing the school year and is now studying to be a nurse.

Bobby Burham, who is 72 and lives in Clarinda in Page County, calls Taylor County home to a "bunch of rednecks. People are prejudiced against something they are not."

Sheriff Lonnie Weed disagrees. "Everybody says racial jokes, but nobody holds anything against" people of other races or ethnic origins, he said. He points to the population of Latinos in Lenox.

Weed said he remembers the Burham incident, but it was one of only a couple of racial disturbances in the county.

True integration of rural Iowa, however, will take effort and determination.

Eric Knoth, owner of Dedicated Business Solutions in New Market, said he knew about the ordinance and has seen how small towns nurture their prejudices subtly.

"I had one black employee. When he walked in, there were some wide eyes around here," he said. "But all my top managers are women. I'm from California. I don't care if they're green."

Loewen said there's no reason black people shouldn't live in former sundown towns today, despite tough economic times.

"People will move into dying towns, whether for relationships or by happenstance," he said.

To move forward, the rural Midwest will have to put the past behind it with official action, Loewen said.

Sundown towns need to apologize publicly for any racist actions and make reparations if it can be proved that blacks were overtly driven out. Loewen said the federal government should promote integration by ending mortgage interest tax deductions for counties that don't.

"It's a civil rights act that won't cost a dime," he said.

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