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Black History Month, day 28
I’ve tried to make many of these entries positive, so as not to suggest that African-American history has been nothing but sorrow. The genius of black poets, leaders, artists, composers, dancers, writers, and organizers is the heritage of African-Americans and other Americans–for that matter, of all of humanity.
Still, there are tragic passages of history I have wanted to include. First, they’re part of our history and think we can learn who we are by learning our country’s history, just as we learn it by knowing our family’s story and our own. Second, they also tell us about the tremendous courage, creativity, and perseverance of African-Americans. It gives me hope for the human spirit even as it makes me feel sick at how cruel and ignorant we can be. And third, they counteract the racism, and internalized racism, that says African-Americans must be near the bottom of the social structure because of some fault within themselves or their culture.
One of the phenomena I didn’t know about until a few years ago is the sundown town: a town where black people were prevented by official policy, enforcement by police or unchecked vigilantes, restrictive covenants, and the like from “allowing the sun to set on them”–in other words, they could pass through, spend money, even work (usually as laborers or domestics) there, but not live there. (There have also been towns that were “sundown” to Jews, Chinese, Native Americans, Mexicans, and others. San Jose, California, now home to more people of Vietnamese descent than anywhere outside of Vietnam, used to exclude Asians.) I touched on this a bit early in the month in my entry about the Green Book. The national expert on it is James Loewen, whose book, Sundown Towns, is a fascinating read; you can also read about sundown towns on his website, and look up towns you know.
Surprise: they will mostly be outside the South. He began his research in his home state of Illinois, and eventually confirmed 456 sundown towns there; in Mississippi he has confirmed only a handful. The phenomenon of white Americans creating white-only towns (sometimes by violently expelling the towns’ black residents) took hold around the end of Reconstruction and was most widespread from 1890-1940. It declined, but didn’t end, then; at the time of his research a few years ago, some towns were still effectively closed to certain groups, usually black people. At its peak, Loewen surmises that “probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African-Americans” (2).
Levittown, the famous planned community that began in New York and was also established in three other states, is widely credited with establishing suburbia and the American middle class. It made home ownership available to blue-collar families. Which blue-collar families? White ones. Black people were not allowed to buy houses there. Repeat this pattern all over suburbia and you start to understand why African-Americans have found it so hard to gain a foothold in the middle class.
For the ambitious and history-minded, Loewen provides a guide to determining whether a given town is, or used to be, sundown. If you enjoy researching genealogy or local history, this is a great project, and Loewen will post your results.
Why bother, especially if the town’s status changed two generations ago? Because the reputation lives on, if not among the people who have always been allowed to live there, then among the excluded populations, with the result that they continue to feel excluded. Without ever being told straight out that people like me (Jews) used to be forbidden to live in Darien, CT, I knew it was a town I didn’t want to drive through, much less live in. I would feel very different about it if the town formally acknowledged its history and apologized for the injustices of the past; until it does so, the impression it gives is that it is content to continue to ride the coattails of ancestral anti-Semitism. Likewise, if a town I live in used to exclude African-Americans, I’d want it to explicitly declare that those days were over and all were welcome, so that it didn’t continue to maintain a de facto exclusion by its reputation.