In my recent article about sundown towns (Monitor Opinion, July 31), I made an effort to define them. I stated such towns were jurisdictions that for decades kept African Americans out so they could remain all-white.
There was one problem though in what I wrote. I did not adequately convey the methods of exclusion.
Sundown signs on the outskirts of towns enforced residential segregation. The wording of these signs was typically something like “N—–, don’t let the sun set on you here” or “Whites only within city limits after dark.” Sundown towns banned Black people from entering city limits after dark.
In the early 20th century, signs like this were everywhere across America. Sundown towns were not just a handful of places. The exclusionary effort was national and it reflected the prevailing racism in our culture. Behind the signs were racist vigilante mobs who took enforcement seriously.
The racist exclusion did not begin with African Americans. Leaving aside the Native American experience, in the Western United States, Chinese Americans were subject to a parallel sundown town process. Before 1884, Chinese people lived in virtually every town in the West. That changed dramatically over the next 35 years.
Between 1885 to 1920, white people violently drove out the Chinese population in towns across Wyoming, Idaho, and in many parts of California. Chinatowns developed in larger cities because so many people were forced out of where they were living across the West. Chinatowns in large cities offered some degree of safety and security. James Loewen wrote: “The attacks on Chinese in the West grew so bad that Mark Twain famously said, ‘A Chinaman had no rights that any man was bound to respect,’ deliberately echoing Roger Taney’s words in Dred Scott. Whites even tried to drive out Chinese from large cities such as San Francisco and Seattle but failed, owing to the enormity of the task.”
The assault on African Americans between 1890 to 1930 was in a similar vein except it covered far wider terrain. Many counties that had African Americans in 1890 had none by 1930. Expelled violently and by other hostile means, African American populations swelled in larger cities.
While the history of lynchings has drawn some attention of late, the larger context of lynchings is missed. Lynchings sent a pointed message to African Americans that they were not welcome in a geographic region.
Lynchings and other acts of vigilante violence covered a far wider area than just the South. Think West Virginia, Illinois, Delaware, Maryland, and California. Sundown towns complement lynching as part of a collective white racist effort toward racial segregation.
American history as conventionally taught simply bypasses much of this racism. The years 1890 to 1930 do not garner that much attention. The history has been submerged and avoided.
In Indiana, there were sundown signs posted in almost every small town. Intentionally all-white communities were all over the Midwest, the West and the North. Black people also could not eat, sleep, or obtain gas at most white-owned businesses. Black people seriously put their lives at risk by disregarding sundown strictures.
Local and regional historians have tended to avoid this history probably because it is bad for community business. It is hard to be honest and face up to our evil side. The political battles about how history is taught show this reluctance. Additionally, old signs have been destroyed and almost all witnesses to this past are dead. Research is difficult.
President Trump’s recent tweet to suburban voters connects to this history in the most backward, denialist way. Trump tweeted: “I am happy to inform all of the people living their suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”
Considering that Trump and his father were sued in the early 1970s by the federal government for housing discrimination, his tweet is consistent with his past. He is pitching toward the hardcore racial sentiments of his base, telling the white suburbanites that he is protecting them from invasion by poor brown and Black people.
Racial healing starts with recognition of our true history. Recalling and admitting the history of violent expulsions and sundown towns is a beginning. Our nation is not yet at a place where it will widely accept that level of honesty and that is true for many Democrats and the overwhelming majority of Republicans.
The writer Barbara Smith has suggested that we need the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to attack white supremacy. I would agree. Attacking white supremacy would result in improvements in the lives of all working people, not just African Americans. If we seriously worked to eradicate poverty, guarantee full employment, implement Medicare for all, and promote fair housing, people of all races would benefit. Such efforts would go far to eliminate the racial wealth gap.
We as a society have to see the racism and its many manifestations before the appropriateness of remedies can be considered.
We have made strides away from sundown towns but not anywhere to the extent we should have. How we move to be a more integrated, less-segregated nation should be on the 21st century agenda for America. Certainly it is complicated and will not be easy, but we need to end the white flight and the racial segregation attendant to it.
Part of being a multi-racial democracy is integrating neighborhoods across the country. Creating interracial milieus would reduce racist views and the desire to maintain sundown towns.
(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)
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