Sundown towns: No blacks after dark
After uncovering all the Lies My Teacher Told Me as well as Lies Across America, James Loewen, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont, takes on another whopper: that racism is a southern problem. Many towns throughout the nation, and mostly outside of the South, adopted the shameful practice of banning African-Americans at night. In Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism ($30), he explains the roots of the practice in the late 1800s, the violent and cruel ways these towns upheld their "law," and the effects today. Loewen, who is white, also explores the similar laws and covenants that kept out Chinese-Americans, Jews, American Indians, and Mexican-Americans.
You'd never heard of a sundown town?
When I was growing up I never heard of them. I was aware that some towns had few if any black folks, but they were often boring towns that I didn't want to live in, and I didn't see why black people would want to live there. I figured it was by choice, but it wasn't.
So you didn't think there were so many of them around?
When I started, I thought I'd have 10 in Illinois because I was focusing my research there and 50 in the whole country, but I found 472 in Illinois and 10,000 across the country.
I would get depressed. It wasn't happy research. I heard that some towns sounded a siren at 6 p.m. each night, and the origin was to tell blacks to get out of town. When I first heard that story, I thought it was an urban legend. But I found enough proof that now I'm suspicious of any town that has a 6 p.m. whistle. Some of them just tell people it's 6 p.m., but originally [some] had a racial connotation.
How much of this research surprises people?
People I talk with often think I'm doing my research in the South. But very few people in the South ever did this. In Mississippi, I only found six sundown towns. Compare that to Illinois. The South was certainly racist but in a different way. Why would you make your maid leave? Southern whites moving to sundown towns in Indiana or other places were astonished that they couldn't bring along servants.
Are there sundown towns today?
That's an impossible question to answer. Even if a town didn't have a single black person in the last census, I would have to know that a black family tried to move in yesterday and failed. A town develops a certain reputation, and no one wants to move there. New Market, Iowa, is suspicious to me. An interracial band played a musical event there in 1985, and at a certain point in the evening, the man on the City Council who engaged the band came up to them and told them that there was almost a racial incident because there's a city ordinance against black people in town overnight. They had fixed it, though, because a majority of the City Council was there and suspended the ordinance for the night. So we find an entire town believing it can put this ordinance back into effect the next day. Can blacks live there today?
How complicit was the government in this?
From the federal to the state to the county to the town, the whole government has been complicit. The Federal Housing Authority wouldn't make loans to interracial neighborhoods, so in one part of Detroit, a wall was erected, and one side was white and the other side was black. Black people live on both sides of the wall now, but it still stands and is a monument to that.
Have any of the towns apologized for the past?
Almost no sundown towns have taken formal steps. Pierce City, Mo., drove out its black population in 1901. Early this summer, in 2005, an African-American in St. Louis found out his great-grandfather was buried there, and he went to the city and had meetings with the mayor and the former mayor and got them to apologize. Vicky Hallett