The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sundown Towns

Lately I've been bothering the local chain bookstores by sitting around reading the latest Jim Loewen book, Sundown Towns. Anyway I've since bought the book. It should be required reading in all history and sociology classes.

Loewen is a Vermont sociologist, and in his sociology he's typical of what you'd expect of a Vermont sociologist's moral priorities (about which, more below). This book however deals with history and not sociology, and must be reviewed as history.

Loewen holds as a point of ethics that sociology must be based on facts about the communities under study, and as a point of opinion that the fastest way to the facts is through the smoldering ruins of legend. His most famed prior books, Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, are collections of vignettes, each summarising specific incidents. They are meant not for historians so much as against them (at least the bad ones). Sociologists then can use Loewen's anecdotes to challenge bad history texts and demand better ones.

With Sundown Towns, Loewen has attempted a history text of his own. He reminds me of Richard Abanes (One Nation Under Gods): another non-historian, biased against his subject, who approaches his subject as a journalist. Abanes disapproves of the Mormon faith, and Loewen disapproves of racial exclusion.

Sundown Towns is about white-only towns, neighbourhoods, and counties whose citizens enforce that status. Not all the citizens need to do this, and those who do have no need for a formal ordinance. It is enough that the municipal government decides not to hinder the vigilante actions of, say, the Ku Klux Klan or the Council of Conservative Citizens. These towns typically allow[ed] non-whites into town if they were passing through or shopping during the day, but around dusk the local mob would gather and let it be known that there would be no protection for non-whites after sundown.

The exact time and form of this harassment varied. At Villa Grove, IL, there was a whistle at 6 PM that signalled when visiting Blacks ought to prepare their exit. At Syracuse, OH, the locals informed such visitors on entry into the town and again at dusk but backed by a mob of stone-totin' children. Most such towns sported signs with either or both of the "witty" slogans, "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU In This Town" or "Nigger, Read And Run; If You Can't Read, Run Anyway". When a Black man or woman broke this ordinance, the citizens resorted to violence.

Loewen thinks that the sundown syndrome started in the North and along the Western coast during the 1850s. The Whig Party had collapsed, and the Democrats began campaigning for the white supremacist vote against such rivals as the "Know-Nothing" American Party. Justice Taney authored the Dred Scott opinion, which injected an anti-Black caste definition into the Constitution. Residential communities in the Pacific territories began expelling their Chinese populations. I would argue that the roots of such ideas stem from expulsion orders against Indian nations and Mormon communities, and Loewen hints as much but does not concentrate on such actions prior to the Compromise of 1850.

President Lincoln and the Radical Republicans after him fought to prevent sundown policies from infecting mixed-race-but-mostly-White communities outside the far West, but after President Garfield's assassination in 1881 the Republicans gave up this fight.

At this point, Blacks in majority-White towns lived at the sufferance of their neighbours. When these neighbours were Democrats, it only took a spark for a sundown policy to go into effect. At Comanche County, TX, in 1878 a Black man went mad and committed interracial murders, and the White community then decided that this was a one-time occurrence; but in 1886 another such crime caused the White community to remove its Black population.

By "removal" and - in most cases - "institution of sundown policy", if this wasn't clear enough already, I mean "pogrom". Loewen has confirmed that many of his sundown towns, if incorporated prior to 1850 or so, started out with a minority free Black population: living with the same rights and working in the same jobs as their White neighbours. When the sun set on this state of tolerance, White mobs expelled their Blacks (or Chinese) who then had to go somewhere else. But since other towns had already gone sundown or were about to go sundown, the Blacks ended up in inner-city ghettoes, at least in the North.

People think of sundown towns as a Southern disease. If you asked a New Yorker to provide examples of sundown enforcement, if he has not read Loewen's book he is almost certainly going to list, and probably in this order: Vidor, TX; Rosewood / Cedar City, FL; Tulsa, OK (as a failed attempt); and if he thinks he's smart then maybe Alba, TX and the Ozarks and Appalachians. But Loewen has proven that the sun set in the West first, and then the idea spread through the Midwest and Northeast. People should be associating sundown with Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. As for the tolerant, Kerry-voting Northeast, Loewen repeatedly points to Darien, CT and Tuxedo Park, NY. Hollywood is complicit in downplaying the true home of sundown: movies like Hoosiers and Grosse Point Blank feature Black school alumni in schools which never admitted Blacks. Sundown struck in the South only well into the 20th century, and then almost entirely in the planter-free highlands. There were a few sundown suburbs down South but they mostly passed in and out of that status over the space of a generation or less (usually from 1950 to 1980 as a result of desegregation; e.g. Sheridan, AK).

The book is an eye-opening tour de force. It exposes what most sundown towns are trying to hide: when they became sundown (either through expulsion or terms of incorporation), and how they continued to enforce this status.

As a point of nitpicking, Loewen has admitted to the board of Washington Independent Writers that he rushed this book into print, due to competitive pressure. I have noticed a few awkward passages here and there; and much of his evidence is stated as "suspected" or "unconfirmed" as of the time he quit gathering information and started organising it. At several points the book pulls from oral hadith of the form "so-and-so told me: yadda yadda yadda and she also said: blah blah". It comes off like Imam Malik's Muwatta or - better - Shafi'i's Risala. Of course Malik and Shafi'i were trustworthy in their quotes from hadith, and I see no reason to doubt the word of Imam Loewen. At any rate Loewen is currently asking for confirmation or nonconfirmation of his findings, and I expect a paperback edition will clear up what awkward passages are there, remove errors, and further footnote those towns which were suspected as sundown in 2002 but have been confirmed as of 2005 or 2006.

Again like the Muwatta and the Risala, Sundown Towns is a vital work for vital historical topics. Just as reading the Muwatta and the Risala has not converted me to Malikite or Shafi'ite Islam, I think that Loewen's book falls short where it suggests what we should do in the future; but that is a topic for another time.

posted by Zimri on 14:15 | link | 0 comments

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