Have you ever heard of a sundown town? Have you ever wondered about the racial diversity in your hometown? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how her hometown lacked racial diversity by design, not chance.
When I was growing up, I had been told that there used to be sign on the edge of town that essentially told African Americans they were unwelcome after sundown. It made sense to me because there were no Black people living in my town of 6,000. There was very little racial diversity. But I still didn’t have any confirmation that my home town really had such a sign or was what is called a sundown town.
Then I found the book, Sundown Towns. I was browsing the book store at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meetings in Montreal and saw the cover. I picked it up and reviewed the table of contents. And then I opened the index. There was not one but several pages where my hometown was mentioned. Here was confirmation that the the sign more than likely existed. I bought the book and came back during the scheduled time the author, James Loewen was to be at the booth. He signed my book and I told him where I was from. We talked for a few minutes and then I moved on and read the book in my spare time over the next year.
The entire state of Illinois figured prominently in the book. And when I began teaching at a community college in Illinois, I knew I had to teach about sundown towns. Many of my students are familiar with the numerous rural Illinois towns mentioned in Sundown Towns. Importantly, several Chicago suburbs were also sundown towns. It wasn’t just a rural phenomenon. And it wasn’t just an Illinois phenomenon.
Most of my students come from towns lacking much racial diversity. When I challenge students to think about why this is, their primary explanation is this:
There is nothing going on in these towns. Jobs are hard to come by. The towns just are not very desirable for current residents to live in let alone for outsiders to consider moving to.
My students are right that the job opportunities in our area are quite limited. They are correct that to continue living in their hometowns, they most likely will have to drive 30-60 miles each way for work. But they are wrong in their belief that the limited job opportunities in the area today have always been limited.
My hometown had four railroad tracks running through town. The city was famous for its greenhouses and legend has it that my community used to be the primary supplier of roses in the Rose Bowl Parade. There also used to be a couple of soda bottling factories, a poultry company, and a couple of coal mines.
Today, we have low-wage, part-time employment opportunities: Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Walgreens, Family Video, and so on. It is quite difficult to both live and work within my hometown.
Once upon a time, however, a person could both live and work in my hometown. There used to be a number of jobs available within the city, but this hasn’t been true for a number of years.
What this means is that there has to be another explanation for the lack of racial diversity in these small towns, my town included.
Moreover, the assumption that these towns have always been White is incorrect. James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns, provides a detailed account using Census data to show how many of these small towns used to contain an African American family or two (or several) and then they all just disappeared-presumably, voluntarily moved away or passed away.
The only mention of any African American presence prior to 2000 in oral histories of the area, involves a coal mine war, when African Americans were brought in as strike breakers. There is no mention in that oral history that there were African Americans already living in town. There is occasional mention of a city ordinance that forbade African Americans from staying in town overnight (i.e., a sundown ordinance). The reality is that most sundown towns used to contain racial minorities but most racial minorities eventually left town due to these ordinances or due to outright violence that drove them out of town.
I grew up in what was once a Midwestern sundown town. Sundown laws and ordinances varied around the nation. They ranged from forbidding African Americans from spending the night in town (they could work, but not live there) to prohibiting them from owning property in a community or neighborhood. African Americans were not the only excluded group. Out West, it was common to exclude Asian Americans. And even once sundown ordinances were declared unconstitutional, real estate agents, banks, and neighborhood associations were careful to prevent African Americans and other racial minorities from owning property or moving into White communities.
To this day, my hometown is predominantly White, but the racial make-up is changing. Few racial minorities and Whites for that matter are tempted to move to my hometown today due to lack of job opportunities, but in the past racial minorities were actively excluded from putting down roots there.
In a nutshell, my hometown was not mostly White by chance, but by design.
- What is a sundown town?
- Do you think your hometown was a sundown town? Why or why not?
- What are the racial demographics of your hometown? You can visit the U.S. Census to find a detailed breakdown or use your own observations. Better yet, check your observations with the Census data.
- Go to Sundown Towns and search for your hometown. What did you learn about your hometown? Do you think the information you found is accurate? Do you know more of the story than is reported by Loewen? Take a minute and give him some additional information.