He also looked at how the memory of slavery is being impacted, citing the difficulty in finding the existence of so-called “sundown” laws that required Blacks to be off the streets at night in many Ontario communities as recently as the 1960s.
There’s references to sundown laws existing, but Kitossa said, “what I find surprising is that the historians, themselves, are actually not providing the empirical evidence to say that we have this bylaw issue here or repealed on this date.”
While he can’t find any evidence of these laws on the books, he’s heard many anecdotal accounts from people about them.
“Whether the laws existed or not, people have these stories and so they believed it to be true,” he said. “So, belief constitutes its own reality.”
From a sociological point of view, Kitossa said this situation tells him “there’s a way that people talk about what to remember and what not to remember, and what to record and what not to record.”
It makes him think of the Japanese internment during the Second World War where the adults that were interned basically stopped talking about their experience.
On one hand, this could be cited as evidence that sundown laws were not as pervasive as important because they were never formalized. On the other hand, Kitossa echoes a famous sociological quote from W. I. Thomas: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Sundown laws don’t need to be officially proposed, debated, and written down in order to be put into action and enforced.
Indeed, this is what James Loewen found in his study Sundown Townswhich argues a majority of communities in the northern United States had such rules. Few communities had signs at the edge of town that displayed such rules and few had formal ordinances. Yet, community memories were strong about the presence of such rules as whites tried to limit the presence of blacks and other minorities.
One might even make the argument that these informal rules are more powerful than formal rules as they didn’t even need to be codified to be in effect.