Shining a light on sundown towns
Large number of whites-only communities surprised author
01:24 PM CST on Monday, November 7, 2005
By JEROME WEEKS / The Dallas Morning News
Vidor, Texas, is infamous for driving away black residents. Considered a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, Vidor has excluded African-Americans to the point of violence. It gained national notoriety in 1992-'93 by foiling a court-ordered desegregation of public housing in East Texas. The nine black people, including five children, who moved there were driven out by protests and threats.
And you may well be living in a similar community and not know it.
Is Highland Park still a sundown town?
According to a new study, whites-only discrimination has prevailed in thousands of areas across the country, North and South. While Vidor is an extreme example, the same principle of whites-only residency has been in effect in other communities, not through outright threats but through local laws, social pressures, police harassment and land buyouts.
These are places such as Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Darien, Conn.
All of Idaho.
And Highland Park in Texas.
Such towns may even be in the majority among incorporated areas in America, says James W. Loewen in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New Press, $29.95). That means thousands of segregated places that Dr. Loewen calls sundown towns because of the sign that used to stand outside a number of the worst (in some cases, well into the 1990s). It warned blacks not to stay after dark.
One critic has called the book "a hand grenade." But Dr. Loewen says he was as shocked as anyone by his data: "I came to this conclusion kicking and screaming."
Professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont and author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Dr. Loewen says in the '60s he knew of only three such towns.
So when he started researching the subject, he thought he might find 10 towns in his native Illinois, where he focused his study, and perhaps 50 nationwide.
His most recent tally is 472 confirmed sundown towns.
Just in Illinois.
A sundown town, by Dr. Loewen's definition, is a community of more than 1,000 people that has excluded blacks for decades to such a degree that they have made up less than 0.1 percent of the population. And this exclusion has been deliberate, whether a "sundown" sign was posted or not.
It's often hard to pin down whether it was by design, so Dr. Loewen doesn't designate a place a sundown town until he finds a paper trail (laws, newspaper stories). But he also relies on oral history, personal reports that verify known facts.
This caused one University of Illinois historian, John Lynn, to object to Dr. Loewen's methods.
But oral history is a "tried-and-true method" for professional historians, Dr. Loewen replies, especially when it comes to touchy subjects like race. Phone threats and Realtors' suggestions, after all, aren't usually written down.
Dr. Loewen has even had to suss out some cases. Census reports, for example, may show a hundred black residents living in a town, but the breakdown is mostly adult women, no kids and few men. It's a gender and age ratio that rarely happens.
Conclusion: They're maids.
Many Americans growing up in all-white or nearly all-white communities assume the local racial makeup "just happened." Black persons just never made it there or didn't find it attractive, preferring instead to live in the crowded, impoverished county next door
What we don't realize, Dr. Loewen argues, is that Census data show that after the Civil War, blacks moved just about everywhere in the country. "There were Republican towns in the North that actually recruited former slaves to live there," he says.
Consequently, we can track black Americans' subsequent exile out of many areas. Under Reconstruction, racial equality improved vastly after the Civil War, but when the backlash set in, it was nationwide, and it was harsh. Dr. Loewen dubs this the Great Retreat, as rural blacks were forced to cluster for safety in some two dozen Northern ghettos where many remain.
There is certainly evidence for the retreat, says Nicholas Lehmann, Columbia University's dean of journalism and author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. When black Americans left Mississippi for Chicago, they didn't move to Chicago. They moved to specific communities in the area, he says, the few that would let them live there.
This was another surprise for Dr. Loewen. Sundown towns are actually rare in the traditional South (this doesn't include Texas or Arkansas because those states were highly contested between Union and Confederate). In the belt from Louisiana through the Carolinas, whites saw no reason to drive away their cheap labor. So contrary to the popular notion of Northern enlightenment, Dr. Loewen says, most sundown towns are actually in the Midwest and North – and in "disputed" areas like Texas. According to Census data, the most segregated city in the country today is Milwaukee.
To illustrate the prevalence of such communities, Sundown Towns recounts how in the mid-20th century, published guidebooks, such as Travelguide: Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation, helped black motorists pick their way past them. Some sundown towns even had sirens to blow a daily warning.
"I couldn't believe that when I heard about it," Dr. Loewen says. "But it wasn't just a single place."
In other words, all of this was not caused by a small number of wild-eyed racists. When these towns were set up, most white residents "either approved of the policy of exclusion or said nothing to stop its enforcement."
It is hard to see how anything this common wouldn't be better known. But Dr. Loewen points to the Tulsa riot in 1921, when many of the town's whites tried to destroy an entire black community. It didn't become widely known until the early '90s, when it first received media attention. And in 1923, there was similar mob violence in Rosewood, Fla., the subject of the 1997 film, Rosewood. Sundown Towns cites dozens of other towns where black residents were attacked by bombings and burnings: Slocum, Texas; Okemah, Okla.; Sheridan, Ark.; Decatur, Ind.
And Dallas. In 1950-51, during a severe housing shortage, a dozen bombings in South Dallas were aimed at terrorizing blacks moving into what was then a white neighborhood. Two half brothers were arrested but not convicted.
Yet no single history, Dr. Loewen says, has been written about all of these events.
But haven't race relations in this country gotten better? A special report from the 2000 U. S. Census did find that residential segregation in metropolitan areas declined between 1980 and 2000.
"We had slavery once, and now we don't," says Dr. Loewen. And discrimination in home sales, public housing, hiring and education is unconstitutional.
But this popular notion of America's march of progress, he says, ignores the complete lack of progress we made in desegregating housing until the 1960s. For decades, it was federal policy to exclude blacks from the loans that let whites afford suburban homes. In effect, whites benefited from a vastly larger federal housing program than any inner-city project.
This meant that when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, it was too late. White suburbia, for the most part, was already built.
To this day, Dr. Loewen says, whites-only towns and suburbs are considered highly appealing or "aspirational." Twelve of Worth magazine's 50 richest towns in 2000 were all-white.
And this is not because blacks cannot afford homes there. Typically, the towns were all-white first, Dr. Loewen points out, and then the wealthy moved in.
Because this racial division taints so much of our landscape, Dr. Loewen sees it as a source of some of America's persistent social ills, including the gap in academic achievement between the races (Americans overwhelmingly strive to get their children into well-off, white suburban schools) and our separation into race-specific enclaves (Hispanics or Asians with a third-grade education are more likely to live among whites than a black person with a Ph.D.).
But perhaps the most vexing problem caused by our racially divided real estate is the basic split in our thinking. What Sundown Towns provides is evidence why black and white Americans recall history in starkly different ways, why the events in New Orleans were quickly viewed in opposing images: blacks as looters or blacks as victims. And why some whites are irked by the persistence of race as a crucial factor even as many blacks are aware that the choice of where they're living was until recently hardly a choice at all.