Some months ago, a friend gave me a copy of “Sundown Towns: a Hidden Dimension of American Racism” by James Loewen. Published in 2005, the book tells of America’s experience in excluding African Americans, and certain other minorities, from various American cities, towns and counties.
The topic has interested me (although I have not done anything to foster my interest) for some time. In fact, since I learned that Pekin, Illinois, the home town of Everett Dirkson, one time Senator from Illinois and Congressional Minority Leader, had at one time a regulation or ordinance (I did not know which) that required African Americans to leave town before the sun went down. I did not assume that Pekin was the only community to have such a rule (although I had never heard of “sunset towns” before I heard about Pekin), but I assumed that such communities must have been few and far between.
What an eye-opener James Loewen’s book was to me. And how depressing.
It turns out that hundreds (thousands?) of American towns (and some complete counties), all over the country, but concentrated in the Middle West (and interestingly rarest in the deep South), by law, by regulation or by practice not only excluded blacks from residence, but often had forcibly removed previously existing African Americans from their homes to make their towns black-free. Most of this happened, it turned out, during the period between 1890 and 1930. Prior to 1890, there were, in many then-future sunset towns existing African American residents.
How did they kick them out? Some locations actually passed laws, or required restrictive covenants in all residential deeds. In some places, there was a lynching, and it became clear that blacks were not to be tolerated. Or there was a riot, or arson, or simply threats. In many locations, signs were posted on the roads leading to town: “Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in _______.” Some towns did allows blacks in (to work) in daylight hours; others made sure even that did not happen.
Often, there was a precipitating event, usually a crime perpetrated by, or alleged to have been perpetrated by, an African American. Sometimes, the crime was not even in the same town. But the crime was projected on the entire minority population, and all were forced to go.
The number of times this occurred is staggering. The excuses given for the action are numerous. And once a town cleared out its black population, the town stayed all white, and proudly so.
Eventually, the residents of these all white towns did not know they were living in sundown towns; the history had been forgotten, sometimes purposely obliterated. And, what is more, there were new sundown towns – or at least new towns where blacks were not able to buy or move into, even if the towns were a bit more sophisticated than the towns of the earlier part of the century. Here, we are talking mainly about suburbs, and all the shenanigans that were pulled to keep them lily white.
So, the definition of sundown towns used by Loewen is broad, but he makes a good case showing their philosophical relationship to each other. He deals with the past, and with the present. In addition to speaking of African Americans, he talks about prejudice against Chinese (the first sundown towns were actually western towns that prohibited Chinese to live in them), Latinos and Jews.
And he tracks the activities of the governments – local, state and federal. He talks about the decisions of the Supreme Court, and which decisions were followed and which basically ignored. He talked about the role of the Federal Housing Administration, refusing to insure loans in areas where blacks were able to live (the prime examples include the Levittowns), the role of financing public housing for African Americans largely in densely populated city areas, and sponsoring new communities for whites (in the D.C. area, Greenbelt, MD).
In addition, he spoke about the effect of all of this both on whites and on blacks, and the repercussions on other areas of American life and society.
This is an extraordinarily troubling book, I thought, and very eye opening. One you should definitely read. It will expand and change your view of this country, I am sure.
I also read journalist Tom Brokaw’s latest book, “The Time of Our Lives”, a fairly profound analysis of today’s America, and a very readable book. Brokaw basically sets forth his domestic policy agenda, mixing in stories of his own background, and conversations he has had with friends and others he has met during his career. He concentrates on those things that need concentration – educational standards, methods and goals; national service, military or otherwise; financial survival skills; savings and greed; volunteering; the internet and technological change. Worth reading – you could get through in an evening or two.