Shedding Light on “Sundown Towns”

By Staff
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As recently as the 1960s, many local governments in the United States had official ordinances outlawing African Americans. Rare in the South, these “sundown towns”–named for a sign at the city limits of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, that read, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On You In Our Town”–were common in the rest of the country. The Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, made it illegal to formally discriminate when selling or renting property. But sundown policies didn’t disappear so much as they went underground, and all-white towns remain even today. 

Sociologist James Loewen detailed this history in Sundown Towns(New Press, 2005). Last year, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly encouraged congregations to look into their own histories of participation in institutionalized racism. Writing recently for UU World, Loewen suggests that they might start by confirming whether their communities ever formally excluded African Americans, and he includes several tips for doing this.

At the local public library, start with U.S. Census data on the town and look for a sudden drop in the black population. Or look for a steady number of African Americans amid increases in the overall population and increases in the black populations of nearby towns. If you find anything, search newspapers from the relevant years for evidence of actions to keep African Americans out. And look at local history books and files of newspaper clippings on race-related subjects. If the research leads you to suspect a sundown policy, talk to the local history librarian and to other local history authorities you can track down.

Loewen offers some savvy strategies for getting information that people might not be thrilled to share. And he urges those who do uncover damning evidence to publicize it and force their communities to own up to their ugly pasts, because doing so also can compel people to address the segregation and discrimination that still exist today.

Steve Thorngate

Image of Lancaster, Ohio, 1938, from theFarm Security Administration Historical Section.

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