Racial Healing Network Members Can Work on Ameliorating Sundown Towns

By. James W. Loewen

Introduction
Sundown towns are communities that for decades were all white on purpose. The term is not used throughout the nation, but with or without the term, many towns, even whole counties, formally or informally kept out African Americans, especially in the North. Some still do.

Since about 1990, many communities have given up the practice. Some remain inhospitable to African American residents, however, and still show no or almost no black families. Other towns have allowed a few black families to move in, but all-white police forces still stop drivers, especially male teenagers, for "DWB," teaching staffs still include no African Americans, and some white residents still feel empowered to be actively hostile. We call these problems "second-generation sundown town issues."

Still other former sundown towns have moved beyond these problems. Greenbelt, Maryland, for example, created by the FDR administration in the 1930s as a utopian (and of course sundown) community, is now 48% black. Oak Park, Illinois, which cut off water and sewage to the first black family to move in, has become famously integrated and named a school for the husband of that first family.

Other sundown towns show no or almost no black families, have never apologized for their sundown pasts, and still seem hostile to African Americans.
By. James W. Loewen

Introduction
Sundown towns are communities that for decades were all white on purpose. The term is not used throughout the nation, but with or without the term, many towns, even whole counties, formally or informally kept out African Americans, especially in the North. Some still do.

Since about 1990, many communities have given up the practice. Some remain inhospitable to African American residents, however, and still show no or almost no black families. Other towns have allowed a few black families to move in, but all-white police forces still stop drivers, especially male teenagers, for "DWB," teaching staffs still include no African Americans, and some white residents still feel empowered to be actively hostile. We call these problems "second-generation sundown town issues."

Still other former sundown towns have moved beyond these problems. Greenbelt, Maryland, for example, created by the FDR administration in the 1930s as a utopian (and of course sundown) community, is now 48% black. Oak Park, Illinois, which cut off water and sewage to the first black family to move in, has become famously integrated and named a school for the husband of that first family.

Other sundown towns show no or almost no black families, have never apologized for their sundown pasts, and still seem hostile to African Americans.

Steps to Take
Every sundown town that remains overwhelmingly white needs to take active steps to transcend its past. I suggest these three steps:
1. Admit it. ("We did this.")
2. Apologize. ("We did it and it was wrong.")
3. State we don't do it any more. ("We are now open to all.")

That last step must be backed by acts to undo the past:
— recruiting members of the formerly excluded group as teachers, police officers, and maintenance workers;
— helping them find housing within the city;
— setting up a racial ombudsperson or civil rights commission;
— and other positive steps.

Of course, recovering sundown towns can take other steps. Citizens in Appleton, Wisconsin, started a chapter of ABC, A Better Chance, which brought African American teenagers to live in the city and attend its high schools. The mayor of Elwood, Indiana, led a march for brotherhood on Martin Luther King Day in 2007, and followed up in later years. Bluffton, Indiana, signed up for the National League of Cities' Partnership for Working Toward Inclusive Communities.

Second-Generation Sundown Town Issues
A community that takes no actual steps can expect that its "2% thug minority" — which besets probably every town — will feel empowered to attack the next black family that tries to move in. Store clerks and teachers who are deliberately cold toward African American customers or children can feel they have the support of the community in expressing their negative attitudes. Police who follow and pull over black drivers and use terms like "NIT" ("Nigger In Town") on their radios can feel they are doing the community's bidding. Along with the community's reputation from its days as a known sundown town, such acts will usually suffice to keep the town totally or overwhelmingly white. (1)

These towns stand out as examples of surely America's most overt and hurtful continuing racism.

Confirming Sundown Towns
What can we (persons of good will, perhaps Racial Healing Network members) do to ameliorate these towns?

The first task is to confirm them. There is no sense in antagonizing a community by accusing it of past practices that it did not do. A few towns have been nearly all-white for decade after decade simply because no African Americans happened to go there. Confirming sundown towns is not hard; a paper at my website, "How To Confirm Sundown Towns" [sundown.afro.illinois.edu/content.php?file=sundowntowns-howto.html], lays out the careful census research and solid oral history that is required. One person can easily do it.

Once s/he has uncovered the informal or formal past practices that kept a town white, s/he should send that information to me for the sundown town website [sundown.afro.illinois.edu/content.php?file=sundowntowns-whitemap.html]. Then the researcher needs to figure out whom to ally with, inside the town: a church congregation? the Chamber of Commerce? a civic organization? students? an individual friend whom you already know?

Ameliorating Sundown Towns
Then that growing group can decide what steps to take next, armed with the confirmation information. An extended campaign may be needed. "Toward Community: Unity In Diversity," the organization residents of Appleton founded to help that city transcend its sundown past, recently commemorated its twentieth anniversary.

After they have shown that a town was all-white on purpose, formally or informally, residents working for change have one major advantage. Few citizens want to go on record in public supporting policies to keep the town all-white. Instead, most residents will fall into these three camps:

1. People who don't care or don't participate. Most people will wind up here. They may have pressing family, health, or occupational concerns. They may never have acted in a civic forum in their lives. We all are on the sidelines on many issues, so we cannot complain about those who fail to participate on behalf of a cause we hold dear.

2. People who don't want their town to have bad race relations. These are our allies, once they learn their town's past and once they see avenues toward change.

3. People who don't want their town to be known for having bad race relations. These people may talk well on the issue but do not really wish to make any real change. Some oppose "digging up the past," which they think should remain buried. Some may grow angry that you are saying bad things about "their" community. Some may prefer to keep their town overwhelmingly white, even though they may not say that openly.

Group two may be smaller in number but may have people willing to sink more energy into solutions. Perhaps they will put up a museum exhibit about the event(s) that resulted in the expulsion of African Americans long ago. (One person achieved this by himself in one sundown town.) Perhaps they will lobby the city council to set up a "Human Relations Council." Maybe they will meet with the school superintendent to ask for more diverse hiring of teachers. They may also request help from their church denomination, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National League of Cities, or other outside organizations.

What Racial Healing Network Members Can Do
Members of this Racial Healing Network are particularly well suited to do this kind of research and even more so, follow up with activism. Indeed, I wonder if some/all of you might be interested in offering services to towns or individuals or groups within towns who request help from outside organizations as mentioned in the prior paragraph. As well, some of you have far-flung networks of people who already care about racial justice. You might rewrite this letter and send it on to them, from you, inviting people to contact you or me to work on healing sundown towns. And of course, your own initiatives will be wonderful.

When asked, I shall be happy to supply you with a list of likely prospects to be investigated near you (or in an area of interest to you or to people you know). If I have any information on such towns, I shall share those files as well, safe-guarded for privacy. I'm happy also to coach people or give suggestions as to persons, groups, and other resources that might prove useful.


1 - Please note: here I use "African American," "black," and "nonwhite" as synonyms. The initial paragraph told how towns kept out other groups in the past. Today, African Americans remain the principal object of exclusion. Some Midwestern towns are 20% Mexican American while still keeping out African Americans.