Sundown towns receiving attention through show “Lovecraft Country”

A new HBO show highlights the little-known but widespread phenomena of sundown towns in Northern states:

“The first thing you need to know about sundown towns, and what Lovecraft Country gets right, is it’s not a Southern phenomenon,” Loewen tells Yahoo Life. “They’re all over the place.”

In his book, he writes, “Between 1890 and 1960, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African-Americans from living in them, creating ‘sundown towns,’” explaining that these towns “are (or were) all white by design,” and adding that, at least in part, “these facts remained hidden because of our cultural tendency to connect extreme racism with the South.”

In 2019, Heather O’Connell published a paper in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity called “Historical Shadows: The Links between Sundown Towns and Contemporary Black-White Inequality.” In it, she wrote that “sundown towns are a key, yet often invisible, piece of our history that reshaped dramatically the social and demographic landscape of the United States,” and argued that these towns are “(primarily) a thing of the past.” But just last month, author Morgan Jerkins wrote regarding sundown towns, “With the rise of hangings of Black men across the nation this summer, I’m not so sure anymore.”…

Loewen says that although Black people are beginning to live in areas that were once sundown towns, they still suffer from the residual effects of such violent segregation, which he calls “second-generation sundown towns.” He notes that some of their key characteristics are “an overwhelmingly white police force that engages in [Driving While Black] policing and an overwhelmingly white teaching staff,” and names Ferguson, Mo., where Black teenager Michael Brown was killed in 2014, as one of these.

Loewen found most of these communities did not have formal signs or regulations that told non-whites that had to be out of town after dark. As I noted in a recent post, making certain forms of discrimination illegal does not necessarily lead to whites wanting to live near other people or even come into contact with others as there are other means of keeping people out.

The article above also hints at how places today understand or enact these past sundown policies. My research on suburban communities suggests a past sundown status could be unknown. This makes sense: some communities would not want to broadcast this today and local histories tend to emphasize positive moments in a community’s history. Perhaps more local residents will work to make these histories known. Even if better-off suburbs today have goals and/or means to keep certain people out, it would not be said so brazenly as that might threaten their status.

More broadly, Loewen’s work focuses on portions of Americans history regularly ignored or intentionally covered up. With his work on textbooks, monuments, and sundown towns, Loewen was ahead of his time in pointing out how Americans do not cover issues of race as well as other ignoble parts of the past.

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