Stories tagged sundown towns

Feb
16
2007

James Loewen, a professor at the University of Vermont, has published a disturbing new book. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism tells the story of American cities and towns which kept out – and often drove out – all non-white residents. (The title comes from the signs which were often posted at the entrance to town, saying “N*****, Be Out Of Town By Sundown.”)

Researching this topic proved to be very difficult. A few towns actually had laws and ordinances prohibiting non-whites from living in the city. But most achieved their all-white status through unofficial means – violence, harassment, and unspoken agreements not to rent or sell to minorities. (Most sundown towns excluded blacks and/or Jews, though many in the West excluded Chinese, Mexicans and/or American Indians.) Very few towns ever discussed this aspect of their history in the newspaper or in official town histories. So, Loewen was faced with a challenge: how to prove racism without official evidence?

First, he had to come up with a definition. He decided to define a sundown town as an incorporated entity of at least 1,000 people that excluded blacks for decades – that was at least 99.9% white, and was that way on purpose. “Incorporated entity” meant he wasn't going to look at sparsely populated rural areas. It also meant he was looking at an entire town that had driven out blacks completely – not simply divided itself into all-white and all-black neighborhoods. Similarly, “at least 1,000 people” limited his search and focused on towns that probably had to make an effort to exclude blacks.

Finding towns that were all-white required reading census statistics. Not just reading them, but also interpreting them. He found towns that had dozens of black families in the census of 1870, 1880, and 1890 – but, in 1900, 1910, or 1920, suddenly dropped to zero. This could be a sign that the blacks were driven out of town by mob violence – something he could often confirm by reading newspapers.

Some towns had black populations with very unusual characteristics. For example, the census might show a town had 1,508 blacks, all male, no children, and none counted as head of a household. It would turn out that each of these 1,508 were prisoners at a jail. Or the census might show 67 blacks, almost all female, few children, and again none head of a household. These he found were domestic servants. In a few towns, the census showed just one black family, decade after decade. It often turned out that, when the citizens drove out the blacks, they left the town barber alone. In all such cases, blacks may have been on the census, but they were certainly not free to live within the city, so he counted them as sundown towns.

(Some towns, especially suburbs, were established as all-white and just stayed that way, even after such laws were declared unconstitutional.)

The trickiest part was proving that towns were all-white on purpose. Few ever wrote their policies into law. Instead, he had to rely on oral history. He would interview the town's oldest residents. If several of them independently offered the same explanation, he would accept that as evidence that that's probably what happened. (Some scientists dispute his methods, but historians and sociologists have long accepted oral histories to fill in gaps in the official record.)

So, how many sundown towns did Loewen find? He has confirmed at least 1,000 towns were exclusionary at some point in their history, and suspects the total number could be as many as ten thousand across the US. Hundreds of counties were all-white. The entire state of Idaho, for a time, was all-white. Most of these towns were in the Midwest – Illinois alone had over 470 sundown towns in 1970, about 70% of all the towns in the state. Other concentrations were found in the northeast, the Ozarks, Appalachia, and Oregon. (Interestingly, the deep South had very few – Loewen could only find six in the entire state of Mississippi. But outside the South, more than half of the cities and towns in America were whites-only for some period of time.)

Are there any sundown towns left today? Hard to say. Surely, there are several hundred all-white communities in the US today. But are they all-white on purpose? Housing discrimination is illegal. Mob violence has thankfully become rare.

But low-level harassment, which is harder to document, still drives blacks out of some towns. No one will hire them, store owners won't sell them anything. Home owners and real estate agents may unofficially agree to only sell to whites. Police give them a hard time. Some towns still have “whites-only” laws on the books. Even though those laws are unenforceable, if the entire town believes they are legal, then they will act as if they are.

So, while sundown towns have been illegal since 1968, there are still hundreds of communities which still operate that way. There are reports as recent as 2004 of blacks having trouble moving into certain towns. There were still “No Blacks After Dark” signs in some areas in the 1990s. And one town in Illinois had a siren on the city water tower. They would blow it every night at 6:00 pm to tell the blacks it was time to get out of town.

They didn't stop blowing the whistle until 1999.

(To learn more about sundown towns, you can read an interview with Loewen here and a review of his book here.