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.

Sociologist James Loewen continues to educate about sundown towns

Sociologist James Loewen has made a career of instructing Americans about the real racial history of the country. He continues to educate people about his findings laid out in Sundown Towns:

By not parrying the South’s attempts to further racism, the North placated the South. In fact, the South began building memorials because, in philosophy, they did win the Civil War. One reason northern states withdrew their efforts was the fact that they were already ridden with Sundown towns, especially in the Midwest. As stated before, Sundown towns gained their reputation from attempting to drive out their black population by dark.

“More than half of towns in the Midwest were Sundown towns,” Loewen said.

In fact, the reputation of former Dearborn mayor Orville L. Hubbard, whose statue stands in front of City Hall, comes from his dedication to maintaining a Sundown Town in Dearborn.

Remnants of Sundown Towns in Detroit are observable today in former residences such as the Orsel McGhee household located at 4626 Seebaldt Ave. The Orsel Mc-Ghees were an African-America family that attempted to moved into a segregated, white neighborhood of Detroit in 1944 but were forced to move after a lawsuit was brought against them.

Another case was the Ossian Sweet case, where Sweet, a black doctor, attempted to defend his home against a white mob that sought to drive him out of a white segregated community on Sept. 9, 1925. A 1985 Dearborn ordinance, passed by an overwhelming white majority vote, made city parks off-limits to non-residents, a measure created to prevent black would-be homeowners from moving in. Loewen also spoke about Anna, Ill., circa 1909. White residents, with the help of local government officials, began to force out blacks and Anna became an acronym for “Ain’t no N Allowed.”

One fairly recent, yet baffling, example that Loewen presented was the case of Villa Grove, Ill. Until 1999, Villa Grove sounded a siren every day at 6 p.m. to warn blacks to leave the city. Similar problems were prevalent in the 1970s despite the Supreme Court’s “Shelley v. Kraemer” ruling stating that state courts could not enforce a restrictive covenant. In this context, a restrictive covenant is a clause in a deed that limits to whom a property can be leased or sold.

Not too many communities are interested in sharing these parts of their history. Loewen’s findings are all the more shocking when he makes clear that this was common across northern communities, places that many Americans learn and think were more open to blacks than Southern communities.

Even though sundown towns are no longer with us, sociologists argue these more formal rules have been replaced by more informal means of keeping minorities and lower class residents out of suburbs. One common technique is exclusionary zoning, a practice where communities only allow larger and more expensive homes to be built. Without much affordable housing, employees in lower income jobs, ranging from municipal workers to retail and service jobs, often cannot live near their suburban jobs and then must also maintain a car, an expensive proposition in itself.

James Loewen still educating people about real cause of Civil War

Sociologist James Loewen has written several good and accessible books about American history (one about textbooks, one about historical monuments). One of the main issues he confronts is about the true cause of the Civil War: slavery or something else (like states’ rights)? Loewen explains again why we can be sure slavery was the main issue:

“One hundred and fifty years ago Christmas Eve day, everyone knew why South Carolina was seceding because they said so — it’s a wonderful document,” said James Loewen, a sociologist and co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.

Four days after South Carolina seceded on Dec. 20, 1860, the state adopted a second document titled “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Loewen considers the record, central to his new collection, one of the five most important documents in the history of the country, launching as it did a seminal chapter in America’s ongoing struggle to define itself.

“So why does nobody ever read it?” he asked. “Everybody knew [secession was] about slavery. This document is all about slavery.”

Seems like a fairly cut and dry issue to me. This may become a more public issue as we near the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.

But historical events are often open to interpretation. In the same article, noted Civil War scholar James McPherson says, “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians of the Civil War would agree on the broad questions of what the war was about and what brought it about and what caused it.”

So how could we get to a point where most or all Americans would acknowledge slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War?