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Shedding Light on Sundown Towns

by LaVon Rice, ASA Minority Affairs Program

If it is true, as Oscar Wilde advised, that our one duty to history is to re-write it, James Loewen is among the most dutiful. The Harvard-educated sociologist has made a career out of challenging what he calls the “bland optimism, blind nationalism and plain misinformation” in U.S. history textbooks. He is wellknown for two books in particular, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong and Lies Across America: What Our Historical Markers and Monuments Got Wrong. His latest work, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, has only sharpened his profile as public intellectual and provocateur.

At 576 pages, Sundown Towns is the first book-length examination of the phenomenon of intentionally allwhite towns in the United States. That fact alone speaks volumes, according to Loewen, who mused: “What does that teach us about race relations and racism? What does this tell us about the sociology of knowledge?” After all, he points out, there are 500 books about lynching. At any rate, this groundbreaking work has garnered a considerable share of attention and accolades, including being named as one of the outstanding books for 2005 by the Washington Post and a recipient of the Gustavus Myers Human Rights Book Award.

Right Under Our Nose

Loewen’s survey of this hidden-inplain- sight demographic landscape goes back to his undergraduate days at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Some of his fellow students were from the area, and Loewen was shocked to hear them talk about the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, where it was proudly declared that there was “not one Negro and not one Jew.” Fast forward a few decades, and find Loewen in a convenience store in Anna, IL, which, according to a store clerk, stood for “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed.” And so began Loewen’s research on “sundown towns,” so named after the common practice of city limit signs that posted threatening messages warning African- Americans, and often other racial/ethnic groups, to leave town before sunset.

“All-white” Legacies

The Illinois-born Loewen was surprised to find 472 such municipal jurisdictions in his native state and that outside of the south, such jurisdictions have been more the rule than the exception. And how did Loewen investigate this open secret, maintained by ordinance, intimidation, and even murder? His first step was to look at census data, excluding institutionalized African Americans and live-in servants, and follow all-white towns through the decades. Any town that was consistently all white, or saw a marked decline of the black population, went on what Loewen called his “suspect list.” Then Loewen would learn everything he could about that particular town’s historical racial makeup to determine if the population’s composition was likely the result of systematic policies versus chance demographics. His research also included examining published history, phone calls to local historians, and inperson interviews. Loewen extended his research on particular areas by interviewing African Americans in neighboring interracial communities. Accounts of cross-burnings, exclusionary legislation, mob violence, and other telling details within a town’s history helped confirm the sundown history of a particular place.

Exclusive without Excluding

Despite the incendiary nature of Loewen’s inquiry, he found most people were willing to talk, although he did get a door slammed in his face. “A few towns had a defensive response.” Upon publication, the reaction has been more astonished than antagonistic, although African Americans tend to be less surprised. “People are amazed to learn how many sundown towns there have been in America,” he states. “People are sometimes amazed that they still live in one.” That’s why, according to Loewen, “we need to clean up every last sundown town in America.” His recommendation to these towns is for them to admit to their history, apologize for it, and make clear that African Americans are now welcome. “After all,” Loewen adds, “George Wallace did those three things before he died, so we can certainly expect that from sundown towns.” Loewen notes the strong correlation between racial composition and prestige in certain places—that is, the greater prestige, the lower the presence of African Americans. Places like Edina, MN, Darien, CT, and La Jolla, CA, “want to be known as ‘exclusive’ and not ‘excluding,’ or racist or classist,” Loewen argues, but exposing these towns is one way “to decrease their prestige and decouple racism from prestige.”

Loewen, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont who currently teaches at Catholic University in Washington, DC, even believes a “school of sundown town studies” should be developed. Such a line of inquiry could examine questions such as “What caused town A to go sundown while town B, eight miles down the road, did not?” Loewen suggests. “I think in answering [such] questions, sociologists will shed important light on both race relations and the phenomenon of mass behavior.” As Loewen sees it, “there is room here for many … good dissertations, good books, and I wish sociologists would write some of them.”

Aided by ASA’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline, Loewen is working on a website that will feature an interactive map of the United States complete with suspected sundown communities. Loewen says he looks forward to hearing from and collaborating with other sociologists on this project. Ultimately, the goal, according to Loewen, “is to out every sundown town in the country.”