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   Vol. 70/No. 5           February 6, 2006  
Whites only in city limits after dark
‘Sundown Towns’ reveals hidden dimension of U.S. racism
(in review)
Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James Loewen, New Press, October 2005, 576 pages, $29.95.

WASHINGTON—“Nigger Don’t Let The Sun Set On You In This Town!” read signs posted at the limits of many U.S. towns beginning in the 1900s. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James Loewen examines the origin and development of towns that prohibited Blacks—and to some degree Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and Jews—from even being present in certain towns after sunset, let alone living in them.

Sundown towns were created through violent expulsions of Blacks in the Midwest and South, and Chinese in the West, which included lynchings and burning of their homes and churches. The creation of these towns was accelerated and maintained by policies of federal government agencies, wealthy real estate magnates, and banks. These pillars of capitalist society often required “restrictive covenants” that excluded Blacks, and in some cases Jews, as a condition for land purchases, building permits, and loans.

Sundown Towns dispels the popular perception that most all-white towns have always been that way. In fact, writes Loewen, following the civil war and Radical Reconstruction Blacks lived throughout the United States even in the remotest areas of states like Montana and the Upper Michigan Peninsula. All-white towns of more than 1,300 were rare.

As the antislavery climate of Radical Republicanism spread, Blacks were welcomed, in some instances into previously all-white areas. In 1862, for example, a large crowd of whites gathered in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to welcome a train carload of former slaves. They were served a welcoming meal and offered rooms at a hotel until they could find jobs.

By 1880, nearly 180 Blacks lived in Fond du Lac. Forty years later the Ku Klux Klan would hold a rally of 5,000 in the county. The number of Blacks in Fond du Lac dropped to 22 by 1930 and 5 in 1940. In 1890 there were 119 U.S. counties reported to have no Blacks living in them. By 1930 that figure rose to 235. The same year 694 counties reported populations with less than 10 Blacks.

Chinese in the West were among the first targets. Until 1884 Chinese lived across the West, and worked in fishing, mining, and building the railroads. Scapegoated as competitors for jobs, an estimated 700-900 Chinese were driven from Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.

In the 1890s Chinese were driven from the fishing industry throughout most of California and expelled from over 40 towns, Loewen says. As part of these expulsions, 480 Chinese were put aboard two steamships in Eureka in northern California that then sailed to San Francisco in February 1885. The pretext was the death of a city councilman struck by a stray bullet allegedly fired by one of two Chinese men in an argument.

Many sundown towns had nicknames that warned Blacks to keep out. During his research in Indianapolis, a convenience store clerk told Loewen the town of Anna in southern Illinois is popularly known as the acronym of “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed.” Anna residents played a central role in the 1909 lynching of Will James, a Black man in Cairo, Illinois. After being hanged, riddled with 500 bullets, and burned, the remains of James’s charred head were displayed on a pole in a Cairo park. James had been arrested for the murder of a white woman in Cairo who was from Anna, 30 miles south. The evidence? Bloodhounds led cops to James’s home. Thousands from Anna went to Cairo for the lynching.

Loewen describes how whites who hired Blacks in these towns and tried to have them stay also faced death. A.W. Berch, a hotel owner in Marlow, Oklahoma, was gunned down in 1923 when he refused to fire a Black employee living in the hotel basement. J.T. Douglas, a Hardin County farmer in southeastern Illinois, was also killed while attempting to prevent a mob from expelling a Black employee living on his farm.

In 1903 Sen. Francis Newlands established the Chevy Chase Land Company to build an exclusive suburb with that name just north of Washington, D.C. When word got out that the developer planned to include a subdivision for housing domestics and other workers, Newlands denied it. He sued the developer for fraud “by offering to sell lots…to Negroes.” A Saks Fifth Avenue store was then built on the lot.

Newlands was instrumental in establishing Rock Creek Park, the largest urban recreational area in the National Parks System. The park increased his property’s value in adjacent Chevy Chase by taking 2,000 acres off the market, Loewen notes. It also established a formidable barrier against nearby Black neighborhoods often referred to as “the wrong side of the park.”

“Today Chevy Chase remains an enclave for rich whites,” Loewen says, using recent U.S. census figures. “In 2000, its 6,183 residents included just 18 people living in families with at least one African American householder.”

In 1938 the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) held that mixing nationalities and social classes was detrimental to neighborhood stability. Until 1948 its manual contained a model restrictive covenant for excluding Blacks, Loewen says. That year the agency boasted it had never insured a housing project of mixed occupancy. FHA publications listed for prospective white buyers “inharmonious racial or nationality groups” alongside such unappealing features as “smoke, odors, and fog.” Some 98 percent of FHA and Veterans Administration home loans after World War II went to whites only.

Despite its length, and absence of a description of how Blacks and others resisted their expulsion from sundown towns, the book is worthwhile reading.  
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