SUNDOWN TOWNS: A HISTORY OF RESISTING DESEGREGATION
Part III in Desegregation and Social Justice
“Oprah Winfrey [broadcasting from Forsyth County, Georgia in 1987, which had almost zero people of color for over 80 years]: You don’t believe that people of other races have the right to live here?
Unidentified audience member #2: They have the right to live wherever they want to, but we have the right to choose if we want a white community also. That’s why we moved here.” James Loewen, Sundown Towns (p.301)
I was raised in a white neighborhood of a segregated city in the Midwest. I knew that there was a school and a public pool for people of color in the other side of town, but I never saw either one. I could count on one hand the African Americans I met, at the same time that I was aware that black people worked in gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants. I did not have black friends until I left home. I do not think my childhood was unusual. But today I am thinking of what it cost me, and I wonder how in my town, as in Forsyth County, it seemed “right” for people to live in white communities.
This year Ben Carson suspended the Assessment of Fair Housing (https://nyti.ms/2JhEaDG ), an ongoing analysis conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), claiming that such “social engineering” by the government was not needed. And yet, fifty years after the Fair Housing Act prohibited racial discrimination in housing, most white people live in white neighborhoods, white towns, and white suburbs. Many are unaware that their exclusive communities were created intentionally over the last century by city ordinance, by redlining, or by the design of gated communities controlled by membership associations. Even fewer realize how many residents of other races were expelled by violence, as occurred in Forsyth County in 1912, and then were warned not to be caught in town after sundown.
James W. Loewen examines this history and its effects on our society today in the book, Sundown Towns. He argues that after desegregation of schools, restaurants, transportation, and other major public institutions, the exclusion of people of color from the communities where we live remains a major contributor to on-going racial tensions in this country. For people who grow up in a town or suburb isolated by race, and often class, it seems perfectly normal to live in an all-white community and, as Loewen states, “to think of a black person not as an individual but as an African American first.” (p. 302) The geographic separation limits friendships and work relationships, making it much harder for people to form cross-racial relationships. “Because African Americans increasingly lived in separate neighborhoods, whites no longer had the benefit of knowing them individually…’The lack of familiarity bred suspicion and resentment.’“(p. 88)
Familiarity with individual African Americans was crucial for the subjects of my previous blogs: In Part I, after the Heffners had gotten to know the civil rights workers, they marveled at their first experience of going to a restaurant in mixed race company (which required a drive across the state line.) In Part II Anne Braden first talked to an African American as an equal when she visited NYC; later she emphasized the importance of getting to know black people when working in an integrated union. Both the Bradens and the Heffners took courageous stands years before housing desegregation laws. It is likely they were well acquainted with the locations of sundown towns at that time.
Today it is easy to imagine that signs like “Whites Only within City Limits after Dark” and “N****r don’t let the sun set on you here” represent extreme examples of bigotry from a by-gone era. But in his research Loewen documented 184 such signs and was convinced that there were many more. A few towns even had 6 o’clock sirens that marked the time when blacks were no longer allowed in city limits. Although most of the signs came down after World War II, some lasted into the 80’s and one was spotted in 1998! Most sundown towns remained exclusively white for decades past their peak at 1940. As recently as 2002 an African American named Carol Jenkins was killed for being in Martinsville, Indiana after dark. (p.212)
Pervasiveness of Sundown Towns
Loewen found that sundown towns were located all over the United States, giving examples from Florida to Indiana to California. His research confirmed 1,000 such towns, and he estimated there were 5,000 to 25,000 sundown towns in total. As a result of this widespread prevalence, millions of African Americans were faced with forced segregation. During the Great Migration the black families who left the South in search of better opportunities were extremely limited in where they could settle. Even those from small towns who might have preferred rural areas were forced into urban ghettos.
The lack of welcome for people of color in rural communities was clear in Illinois, where Loewen did his most thorough analysis based on historical research and oral testimonies. Of the 671 towns with at least 1000 inhabitants, he found that 70% were all-white. A 1952 map of manufacturing towns (towns with at least one factory) in southern Illinois shows the impact by printing in plain text the those few towns open to blacks and denoting the all-white sundown towns in bold (confirmed in capital letters and suspected in lower case.) In addition, the map shows the “Dead Line” to the south, separating this industrial area with many towns where blacks were not allowed (and not safe) from the cotton country where they lived and worked the fields. Signs were posted on rural highways along the Dead Line to warn blacks of risk to their lives if they continued north.
It is worth noting that the first sundown towns in California were created by expelling Chinese. For example, in 1876 whites drove the Chinese residents from Antioch, CA, and in 1877 whites burned down the Chinatown in Rocklin, CA. (p.52) Chinese people were also violently expelled from towns in other Western states. In some areas of the country Jews, Mexican Americans and Native Americans were also intentionally excluded. Not surprisingly, African Americans (and sometimes Jews) were excluded from resort areas with beautiful coasts, lakes, and mountains. For many years wealthy suburbs in California kept out African Americans, Jews, and Mexican Americans — these included La Jolla, near San Diego, most suburbs of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and most of Orange County. The resulting all-white communities were proud of their accomplishment, advertising it to attract new (white) residents. In the early decades of the 20th century, towns in Arkansas and Tennessee boasted “No mosquitoes, no malaria, no n****rs” and in 1936 a small town in Michigan proudly declared “not a Catholic, foreigner, Negro nor Jew lived in the city.” (p.48)
Establishment of Sundown Towns
How did this come about? During reconstruction (1865–1877) African Americans lived in many small hamlets and towns scattered around the country, including many that later became sundown towns. Loewen describes how they were forced out in the period starting around 1890, often in response to a specific occurrence, such as accusation and lynching of a black person for murder or rape (usually without evidence or a trial). In the area surrounding Comanche, TX, where they lynched an African American man for allegedly killing a white woman in 1886, so many towns carried out copy-cat expulsions that a 3000 square mile area of north-central Texas was “rid” of blacks. Another catalyst was the use of blacks as strike-breakers in mining towns: in Carterville, IL all the black residents were driven out after some African Americans worked as strike breakers in 1899. Blacks also left in fear after marches of the KKK and threats from local police officers. African American residents did not always leave without resisting. In East St. Louis, where local black leaders were seeking political autonomy, inhabitants used armed self-defense to prevent it becoming a sundown town in 1917 (C. Lumpkins, American Pogrom, 2008).
Loewen found that “Every sundown town, especially those that expelled their African Americans violently, has its own answer as to why it went all white … telling about the incident[s] that triggered it [which] often are after-the-fact rationalizations detailing acts that may or may not have taken place.” (p. 172) He states, “Residents of town after town regaled me with stories of African Americans who had been killed or injured for the offense of moving in or setting foot in them.” (p.271) Extreme hostility gave some communities a reputation for vicious white supremacy that kept African Americans away. Some towns even refused to sell gas to African Americans so that black motorists had to carry excess gas when driving through the region. Although white residents who hired or befriended African Americans also risked violent reprisal, there were some individuals who stood up to the mobs: a governor in Indiana stopped forced evictions, while a sawmill owner in Texas and a restaurant owner in Nevada refused to fire African American workers.
Various mechanisms allowed communities to remain all white. Suburbs were established to be all white by design, drawing their boundaries to exclude existing African American neighborhoods. “Every planned community founded after 1890 and before 1960 by a single developer or owner kept out African Americans from its beginning.” (p. 112). Some also kept out Jews. Exclusion was enforced by restrictive real estate covenants and mortgage policies supported by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). “More than 98% of the millions of home loans guaranteed by the FHA and the VA after WWII were available only to whites,” while federal money for black housing went to build high-rise ‘projects’ in the inner city. (p. 130) When these practices were outlawed by Title VIII, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, discrimination went underground. Laws prohibiting discrimination in housing were not enforced, as realtors lied, stalled, missed appointments, led black clients away from white neighborhoods, and imposed special requirements on blacks to shut them out of home purchases. Furthermore, attempts to move into white neighborhoods were met with home destructions by fires and bombings (see Part II).
It was housing restrictions and not a lack of jobs that excluded most African Americans. For example, to work in the auto industry blacks were forced to commute to Dearborn, MI from homes in the inner city of Detroit. They were even kept out of areas where they were brought in for specific jobs, like building the Kentucky Dam — upon its completion in 1944 they were kicked out and their “Negro Village” was razed. (p.141) Poverty did not entirely account for their exclusion: a much higher proportion of poor white families than poor black families lived in the suburbs. Although whites claimed that blacks brought problems because they were criminals and “ne’er-do-wells”, in fact they attacked blacks “who were industrious and successful, for it was these families whose existence set up a claim to social and economic equality.”(p. 168) Once schools were ordered to desegregate (1954), some towns avoided this legal mandate by expelling black families. Then when a black family with school-age children moved in, attacks on the children — such as beating them up as they stepped off the school bus — quickly convinced them to leave. Racial attacks also happened when athletic teams from all-white high schools played teams of nearby integrated towns, a hazard which still occurs today.
Limited prospects, lower esteem
Decades of segregation have led to exclusion of blacks and other minorities from social, educational, and business opportunities, with enormous consequences. It has had psychological effects as well: “Segregation promotes the devaluation of black life even among blacks, and can lead to self-hatred,” wrote psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint in 2002. (p.352) The lack of ease it creates for blacks is the opposite of “white privilege” that allows “upper- and middle-class whites to feel that they will never be challenged as out of place.” (p.345)
Loewen believed that sundown towns both collect and create racists, stating, “The act of living in sundown neighborhoods and attending all-white schools communicates to everyone in the society that whites are superior.” (p.352) I know this is true from my own experience. It wasn’t until I lived and worked in integrated communities that I began to have enough knowledge of and friendship with people of color to see them as complex and unique individuals, not just as representatives of their race. It is a continual challenge for me to shed my white privilege and discard my sense of white superiority, even after raising my family in a mixed race community. For years I watched my children play with a rainbow of friends, and I can see that as adults they are comfortable in mixed race situations. This gives me hope.
Showing up for housing justice
Loewen’s book convinced me of the importance for people working for social justice to strive to end housing discrimination, especially at a time when federal enforcement of desegregation laws is in retreat. We can work for rent control to fight displacement and gentrification in our cities. We must demand that housing developments include truly affordable housing. And we can pressure our representatives in Congress to restore the HUD Assessment of Fair Housing to require that cities analyze their housing segregation and submit plans to reverse it. For those of us who are white, no matter where we live, we can strive to make mostly-white environments safe and welcoming for people of color.