Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism--A Book Review

Most known for his books "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "Lies Across America," James Loewen tackles a subject that few white and just as many blacks Americans know little about and that is racism in small town America. "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism," is a kick in head for those believing that racism in the United States is dead. This book also holds a significant reminder for me because I saw the signs and encountered the people in "sundown" towns.

"Sundown towns" are small towns or suburbs that threatened African Americans to keep out–or else. Loewen makes it clear that not only did they exist, but remain in a variety of places all over the United States. Often sobering and shocking, Loewen's account reveals the insidious legacy of racism that still reverberates today.

Loewen's book grabbed my attention and held it because I had experienced what he writes about firsthand. When I was a young man, baseball was the game of youth across the United States. As a young black teenager, I played baseball well enough to move up to the semi-pro level. Playing semi-pro baseball meant leaving the local ball field to play in other towns in the vicinity. I first saw the sign "Nigger be out of town by Sundown" in Vinita, Oklahoma. I was angered and frightened. So, much of what Loewen writes about is personal to me.

The book traces the advent of "sundown towns" in rural Illinois, Loewen’s home state. Although written on a scholarly level, the book is filled with facts, figures and meticulous research. Even though it is not an easy read, it is well worth the effort. Every American should read this book, especially those who think racism was limited to the South. It wasn't. For many, that the North had thousands of "sundown towns" may come as a revelation, but Loewen's research makes it clear that sundown town not only existed in the north, but still are part of the American landscape.

The author gives an extensive analysis of racism and states clearly that the idea of post racialism is flawed idea at best and misleading at worst. “Sundown Towns" raises the curtain of racism and hypocrisy in American society and reveals known history that today even its victims know little about. The reader is forewarned that the material is maddening and shameful. However, Loewen is a dispassionate researched and lets the story tell itself.

This is an important book in understanding America's racial legacy that rarely if ever is written much less unveiled in public discourse because few know about it and those that do are individuals such as me that have no forum to mention it. Again, this is not an easy read because of its scholarly nature, but it because of that that I rate it so highly. It is well worth the effort, despite its 450 pages, to become informed of past and current American history.

Donald R Barbera, 2006

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Tags: History, Loewen, Race, Racism, South, Sundown

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Comment by Bud the Wonderer on December 23, 2013 at 6:18pm

I'm 54, and began living in the South in the 70s through the late 90s. I'm white, and many other white people then would say racist things to me, just assuming that I thought the same way that they did. I lived in California for 14 years, before returning to the South again, two years ago. It's almost physically painful to see the (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) social dynamics of racism that still exist. In CA I could almost believe that racism was a thing of the past. Sadly, in my past two years my eyes have been opened.

Comment by k.h. ky on December 23, 2013 at 12:32am

I look forward to reading this.

Comment by Sentient Biped on December 22, 2013 at 11:09am

Ted -  "My school chums, some of whom experimented with thinking in their rebellious phase..."  That is hilarious.  Sometimes I wonder what happened to some of my schoolmates, but I'm not masochistic enough to pursue finding out.

Derek, I quite a job partly because the group was moving to East Tennessee.   My life would have been so different, had I gone there.  And much much worse.

Joan, I lost many friends too and for all intents and purposes no longer have a biological family of origin.  The family I gained is as precious as gold.  I think, for you too.  You are right, there is a cost to freedom.  I'm grateful to have ways to connect with others who somehow, despite supposedly insurmountable odds, and despite coming from very different circumstances, families, and communities, wound up with shared values and experiences.

Comment by Joan Denoo on December 21, 2013 at 3:56pm

Here again, we find the insidious nature of racism and prejudice. Silence does nothing to change anything. To be quiet, polite, "sensitive" to whites' feelings, did nothing at all to make life safer and better for our citizens. Too hear people try to silence the exposure of what racism is, how it works, why it continues, what perpetuates it, creates another example of the awful effects of the "Passive Gospel". Passivity is not the answer.

If we are serious about wanting to create the kind of nation we claim we want, we have to stand up and speak out against all forms of discrimination. Some say it is too hard, or others won't like us, or just ignore the insults, or act as if everything is fine. NO! That is not what we need.

Yes, speaking out and standing up are hard; who said courage, wisdom, and justice are easy? Develop a thick skin, rehearse if you need to, join with other people who think as you do, start with small events at first and build up as you gain experience.

I lost lots of "friends" and many family members reject my honesty about what is real, but how do I and you and we regain our self-respect if we do nothing? I realize, for a lot of people, taking a stand is dangerous, physically, mentally and emotionally. Do what you can; nothing more can be asked of one. If we want freedom, there is a cost of getting it.  

Comment by Derek Whitman on December 21, 2013 at 2:44pm
I live in rural Mississippi a couple years ago. So strange to me, so much racial tension. I grew up in the south but mostly in larger cities. The area was 55% black with no black leadership and no black cops. Before I moved there I didn't know places like that still existed. I quit a good job to get out of there.
Comment by Ted Foureagles on December 21, 2013 at 12:29pm

I grew up, such that I did, in North Carolina, where half of my family has lived since 1740 and the other half for a few thousand years before that.  My brilliant grandfather never went to school because he was classified as "colored" (Cherokee), and his racist father wouldn't let him attend the "nigger school".  My uncle took me to a Ku Klux Klan rally when I was 6 years old (the most similar thing I've seen since was a Tea Party rally).  In the early 1960s the KKK burned a cross on our lawn and vandalized our family business because we gave credit to our black neighbors and because we refused to join the church.  In the next little town over, appropriately named "Faith", a large sign stood in front of the church at the edge of town, and it read, "Nigger don't let the sun set on you in Faith".  It was removed just before GHW Bush came to speak there in '92.

The KKK/church (no daylight between them) ran everything.  The mayor, sheriff, minister, school principal -- pretty much everyone of any social standing in a neighborhood 40% black had to be a member in good standing with the Klan and the Church.  I imagine that Saddam's Baath Party (98% of the "vote") was equivalent.

I only go back there for funerals.  A lot has changed on the surface and in the power structures, but the "down home" racism is still strong and still felt as Christian unity.  A couple of state legislators from that county recently introduced a bill making Christianity the state religion.  My school chums, some of whom experimented with thinking in their rebellious phase, are now all fundamentalist Christians, and a good half of them are proud KKK members.

There still exists these black holes of fundamentalism, and on their more moderate fringes are built sociopolitical "mainstream" encroachments on the political fabric of the region. 

Comment by Donald R Barbera on December 21, 2013 at 7:00am
Dennis--Unfortunately, there are people that grow up that way. It is a learned behavior. Just like religion, none of us are born with although we might be born to it. I was Catholic before I even knew who I was. I played baseball in many of those towns and we knew the rules, unless it was a night game, we were gone before the sun set. Usually, the other ball players never gave us a problem but the fans certainly did. However, it did motivate us on the field. Our goal was to put a serious beating on the home team, which we usually did. Nevertheless we were careful not to humiliate them, just embarrass. Sadly, many of those towns still exist. In fact,replying to you reminded me of the Green Book. I will post a blog about it
Comment by Michael Penn on December 20, 2013 at 7:17pm

I live in Bourbon, Missouri just 5 miles from Sullivan, Missouri. Back in the 60's into early 70's Sullivan was a "sundown town" and the chief of police was also the local Klansman. We have some black people around here now, but it was impossible back then. The wife and I have lived here in Bourbon maybe 6 years, but when we first moved here a truck passes us one day and someone saw my black wife and cried out "get a rope" as they passed by. Sometimes it takes time to teach tolerance.

Comment by Sentient Biped on December 19, 2013 at 9:03pm

I grew up in rural Illinois.  It was segregated.  I thought it was bad there, until I lived in Indiana and discovered it was worse there.  That was after I got out of the Army, which because the military was ahead of the rest of the country, had led me to forget how prevalent segregation was..

I'm digressing because my town was more or less a sundown town, where I was told black people had to be careful after sundown, if they were in the wrong part of town.

Have you read this one:  Buried in the Bitter Waters.  "The hidden history of racial cleansing in America".  

I have the hook but have not finished it.  It is kind of slow reading.  The reviewer isn't wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the book, but makes an important statement - " We need to be shocked by that terrible truth, to read the stories and cringe at their cruelty. Only then, as Jaspin says, will we be willing to confront the question of how to secure justice for the families that were driven from their land in the early 20th century"

What gets me is, knowing the history, both in abstract and often up close and personal, how do the recipients of such treatment, and their descendants etc, look others in the face without perpetual anger?  It angers me no end, and I'm white.

There's also a place in Illinois that nobody knows about, called New Philadelphia.  A racially integrated town founded by a black man, a freed slave.  During the slave era.  The town was bypassed by the railroads - I read that was because it was a racially integrated town - and ultimately dissipated because of losing the railroad.  My mother grew up near there.  There was some suggestion her family was racially mixed, but my ancestry.com DNA test did not reveal that, whatever that proves.

Anyway, thanks for the review.  I still haven't gotten over "Slavery by another name"!

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