"Sundown Towns,"by James W. Loewen November/December 2005 issue of Poverty & Race
Between 1890 and 1968, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African Americans from living in them. Thus were created “sundown towns,” so named because many marked their city limits with signs typically reading, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___.” Some towns in the West drove out or kept out Chinese Americans. A few excluded Native Americans or Mexican Americans. “Sundown suburbs” developed a little later, mostly between 1900 and 1968. Many suburbs kept out not only African Americans but also Jews.
I learned of these towns gradually, over many years. Back in the 1960s, when going to college in Minnesota, I heard residents of Edina, the most prestigious suburb of Minneapolis, boast that their community had, as they put it, “Not one Negro and not one Jew.” The Academy Award-winning movie of 1947, Gentleman’s Agreement, taught me about the method by which Darien, Connecticut, one of the most prestigious suburbs of New York City, kept out Jews. Later I learned of the acronym that residents of Anna, Illinois, applied to their town: “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed.”
Each of these stories seemed outrageous. I resolved to write a book about the phenomenon. Initially, I imagined I would find maybe ten of these communities in Illinois (my home state, where I planned to do more research than in any other single state), and perhaps 50 across the country.
To my astonishment, I found 472 sundown towns in Illinois, a clear majority of all of the 621 incorporated places of more than 1,000 population. (I made no systematic study of towns smaller than that.) Similar proportions obtained in Indiana, Missouri, Oregon and probably many other states. I found hundreds more across the United States and now estimate that probably 10,000 such towns exist. By 1970, more than half of all incorporated communities outside the traditional South probably excluded African Americans. (Whites in the traditional South were appalled by the practice—why would you make your maid leave?) Sundown towns ranged from hamlets like De Land, Illinois, population 500, to large cities like Appleton, Wisconsin, with 57,000 residents in 1970. Sometimes entire counties went sundown, usually when their county seats did. Independent sundown towns were soon joined by “sundown suburbs,” often even larger, such as Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, with more than 60,000; Levittown, on Long Island, more than 80,000; and Warren, a Detroit suburb with 180,000 residents.
These towns and these practices do not date back to the Civil War. On the contrary, between about 1863 and 1890, African Americans went everywhere in America. During this “springtime of freedom,” many communities, especially those with large Quaker, Unitarian or Republican populations, welcomed them. Then, between 1890 and 1940, blacks commenced a “Great Retreat.” This period is becoming known as the “nadir of race relations,” when lynchings peaked, white owners expelled black baseball players from the major (and minor) leagues, and flourishing unions drove African Americans from such occupations as railroad fireman and meat processor.
During this era, whites in many communities indulged in little race riots that until now have been lost to history. Whites in Liberty, Oregon, for example, now part of Salem, ordered their blacks to leave in 1893. Pana, Illinois, drove out its African Americans in 1899, killing five in the process. Anna, Illinois, followed suit in 1909, Pinckneyville probably in 1928. Harrison, Arkansas, took two riots by whites before the job was done—in 1905 and 1909. Decatur, Indiana, expelled its black population in 1902. White workers in Austin, Minnesota, repeatedly drove out African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. Other towns that drove out their black populations violently include Myakka City, Florida; Spruce Pine, North Carolina; Wehrum, Pennsylvania; Ravenna, Kentucky; Greensburg, Indiana; St. Genevieve, Missouri; North Platte, Nebraska; Oregon City, Oregon; and many others. Some of these mini-riots in turn spurred whites in nearby smaller towns to have their own, thus provoking little waves of expulsions. White residents of Vienna, Illinois, set fire to the homes in its black neighborhood as late as 1954!
Many towns that had no African-American residents maintain strong oral traditions of having passed ordinances forbidding blacks from remaining after dark. In California, for example, the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s tried to locate a company of African-American workers in a large park that bordered Burbank and Glendale. Both cities refused, each citing an old ordinance that prohibited African Americans within their city limits after sundown. Other towns passed ordinances in Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Maryland and probably many other states. Some towns believed their ordinances remained in effect long after the 1954 Brown decision and 1964 Civil Rights Act. The city council of New Market, Iowa, for example, suspended its sundown ordinance for one night in the mid-1980s to allow an interracial band to play at a town festival, but it went back into effect the next day. Other towns kept out African Americans by less formal measures, such as cutting off city water, having police call hourly all night with reports of threats, or assaulting African-American children as they tried to go to school.
Some sundown towns allowed one exception. When whites drove African Americans from Hamilton County, Texas, for example, they allowed the elderly “Uncle Alec” and “Aunt Mourn” Gentry to remain. In about 1950, whites in Marshall, Illinois, even christened their exception, “Squab” Wilson, the barber, an “honorary white man.” Meanwhile, Marshall posted the traditional sundown signs. Other permitted exceptions included live-in servants in white households and inmates of mental and penal institutions.
How have these towns maintained themselves all-white? By a variety of means, public and private. DWB, for example—“driving while black”—is no new phenomenon in sundown towns; as far back as the 1920s, police officers routinely followed and stopped black motorists or questioned them when they stopped. Suburbs used zoning and eminent domain to keep out black would-be residents and to take their property if they did manage to acquire it. Some towns required all residential areas to be covered by restrictive covenants—clauses in deeds that stated, typically:
Always, lurking under the surface, was the threat of violence or such milder white misbehavior as refusing to sell groceries or gasoline to black newcomers.
The Civil Rights Movement left these towns largely untouched. Indeed, some locales in the Border States forced out their black populations in response to Brown v. Board of Education. Sheridan, Arkansas, for example, compelled its African Americans to move to neighboring Malvern in 1954 after the school board’s initial decision to comply with Brown prompted a firestorm of protest. Having no black populations, these towns and counties then had no African Americans to test their public accommodations. For 15 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, motels and restaurants in some sundown towns continued to exclude African Americans, thus forcing black travelers to avoid them or endure humiliating and even dangerous conditions. Today, public accommodations in sundown towns are generally open. Many towns—probably more than half—have given up their exclusionary residential policies, while others still make it uncomfortable or impossible for African Americans to live in them.
These towns also have an adverse impact on their own residents. When kids ask parents why they live in a given town, especially if it is a suburb, parents are apt to reply that it is a good environment for raising children. The children know full well that their town is overwhelmingly white, making it logical to infer that an environment without blacks is “good.” While anti-racist whites can emerge from such settings, and some have, it is far easier to conclude that African Americans are bad and to be avoided. Young people from sundown towns often feel a sense of dread when they find themselves in racially mixed situations beyond their hometowns.
Still worse is the impact of sundown suburbs on the social system. The prestige enjoyed by many elite sundown suburbs—such as Edina, Darien or Kenilworth, the richest suburb of Chicago—makes it harder for neighboring suburbs to become and stay interracial. When a white family makes even more money than average for the interracial suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, say, they may want to express their success by moving to an even more prestigious (and more expensive) suburb, like Kenilworth. Such a family may not choose Kenilworth because it has no black families (as of the 2000 Census), but because of its prestige—but the two have been intertwined for a century.
What to Do?
What is to be done about sundown towns? Governmental action does help. Until 1968, new all-white suburbs were forming much more rapidly than old sundown towns and suburbs were caving in. In that year, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, along with the Jones v. Mayer decision, barring discrimination in the rental and sale of property, caused the federal government to change sides and oppose sundown towns. Since then, citywide residential prohibitions against Jews, Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics have mostly disappeared. Even vis-à-vis African Americans, many towns and suburbs relaxed their exclusionary policies in the 1980s and 1990s. As of 2005, however, de facto exclusion of blacks is still all too common.
At a minimum, any former sundown town should now be asked to make three statements: admit it (“We did this.”), apologize for it (“We did this, and it was wrong.”), and proclaim they now welcome residents of all races (“We did this; it was wrong; and we don’t do it anymore.”) Even George Wallace managed these statements before he died, after all!
The last chapter of my 2005 book Sundown Towns is titled “Remedies.” It suggests things that individual families can do, policies that local governments should put into effect, acts that corporations can take, and a new law that states or the federal government should pass. The last, titled “Residents Rights Act,” is modeled to a degree on the very successful 1965 Voting Rights Act. If a community has a provable sundown past (and this can be done, as my research shows), continuing overwhelmingly white demographics, and two or more complaints from recent black would-be renters or homebuyers, then the act would kick in. Among its provisions, residents would lose the ability to exempt mortgage interest payments and property tax payments from their incomes at tax time. After all, by this exemption the federal government, seconded by state governments, means to encourage homeownership in America, a fine aim. However, homeownership by whites in sundown towns is not so fine an objective and does not deserve encouragement in the tax code. The day after this act is applied to a given sundown town or suburb, its residents will be up in arms, requesting that their government and realtors recruit African Americans as residents so they can recover this important tax break.
Even if no government enacts the Residents Rights Act, individuals can do the research to “out” sundown towns. Especially elite sundown suburbs, but even isolated independent sundown towns, rely upon deniability for their policy to work. I call this the “paradox of exclusivity.” Residents of towns like Darien, for instance, want Darien to be known as an “exclusive” community. That says good things about them—that they have the money, status and social savvy to be accepted in such a locale. They do not want to be known as “excluding”—especially on racial or religious grounds—for that would say bad things about them. So long as towns like Darien, Kenilworth, Edina and La Jolla, California, can appear “accidentally” all-white, they can avoid this difficulty. At the very least, then, making plain the conscious and often horrific decisions that underlie almost every all-white town and neighborhood in America is a first step toward ending what surely remains as the last major bastion of racial segregation in America.
James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, both published by New Press, publisher of his just-released book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism - an important new tool for organizing around housing discrimination issues. firstname.lastname@example.org
Loewen is planning to produce a registry of sundown towns on his website (www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/); contact him if you have information on towns that did or still do keep out blacks and other minorities.
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