New Book Documents "Whites Only" Policies for Whole Towns

When Signs Said 'Get Out' In 'Sundown Towns': Racism in the Rearview Mirror
By Peter Carlson


Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006; C01

Anthony Griffin remembers the signs. How could he forget them?

A black lawyer, he grew up in Baytown, Tex. Back in high school in the late '60s and early '70s, he would borrow his mom's car and drive around East Texas, exploring. He saw the signs in a couple of towns.

"I was terrified," he says. "You're driving with your buddies and you say, 'Thank God, it's not dark. Let's get the hell out.' "

George Brosi remembers the signs, too. Editor of Appalachian Heritage magazine, he recalls seeing one sign in southern Kentucky back in the 1990s when he was a college English teacher.

"It was on Highway 461," he says. "It stayed up for about a year and then it mysteriously disappeared. It was probably five feet across and three feet tall. It was off the right-of-way, up on a hillside in an overgrown pasture."

The signs are gone now but once they were a part of America's roadside culture, posted along the highway at the town or county line, a blunt reminder of brutal racism.

"Most read 'Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Set on You in -- ,' " says James Loewen, the Washington-based author of a controversial new book called "Sundown Towns." But sometimes, he adds, the sign makers tried to get clever. "Some came in a series, like the old Burma Shave signs, saying, ' . . . If You Can Read . . . You'd Better Run . . . If You Can't Read . . . You'd Better Run Anyway.' "

Most of the signs were posted in the first half of the 20th century, Loewen says, but some lingered on long afterward. They were not a Southern phenomenon, he stresses. They were found all over the United States with local variations:

In Colorado: "No Mexicans After Night."

In Connecticut: "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark."

In Nevada, the ban was expanded to include those the sign-writers term "Japs."

All told, Loewen says, he found evidence of more than 150 sundown signs in 31 states. But he wasn't researching the sundown signs . They were just symbols. He was researching sundown towns , which he defines as "towns that were all white on purpose." He found lots of them -- far more than he expected when he began his research in his home state of Illinois about five years ago.

"I thought I was going to discover maybe 10 such towns in Illinois and maybe 50 across the country," he says. "And I've confirmed 204 in Illinois and, in the country, thousands."

What he stumbled on, he says, is a little-known history of an American variety of ethnic cleansing. But other experts say Loewen may be overstating his case.

The Great Retreat
"I had an Aha! moment," says Loewen, 63, sitting in his living room in Northeast near Catholic University. "It was October of 2001. I was speaking in my home town in Decatur."

Loewen, a retired sociology professor who taught at Tougaloo College, a historically black school in Mississippi, and at the University of Vermont, traveled to Decatur, Ill., to lecture on the most famous of his six books: "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong," a liberal critique of American history textbooks that has sold more than 800,000 copies since it was published in 1995.

"When I finished [speaking], I said, 'Now I'm working on a new book about sundown towns, and if you know anything about that, would you come down afterwards and talk about it?' " he says.

"To my astonishment, 20 people trooped down and they told me all kinds of stuff about every town around Decatur. Growing up, I knew those towns were all white, but I didn't give it a second thought. But it turns out that almost every one of those towns was all-white on purpose ."

After researching a century of census data, Loewen, who is white, concluded that his home state was part of a national trend that he calls "The Great Retreat."

After the Civil War, he says, newly freed slaves migrated all over America. In 1890, African Americans lived in all but 119 of America's thousands of counties. But by 1930, 235 American counties had no black residents and 694 other counties has fewer than 10 black residents.

What happened?

Starting around 1890, Loewen says, scores of rural towns in the West and Midwest began expelling black people.

Sometimes, the triggering event was violence: In Henryetta, Okla., in 1907, a black man was accused of killing a white man in a dispute. A white mob lynched the suspect, then drove the rest of the town's black residents away.

Sometimes, the triggering event was a labor dispute: When white coal miners in Pana, Ill., went on strike in 1898, the mine owners hired black strikebreakers and the whites rioted, driving all black people out of town.

Sometimes, Loewen says, there was no specific trigger. Whites simply passed ordinances forbidding black people from buying or renting homes and, in some cases, even appearing on the street after sundown. To advertise their actions, the towns sometimes posted sundown signs on the highway or in the railroad station.

"There was a contagion of ordinances," says Loewen. "Many small towns expelled the black population or decreed a policy of not allowing any blacks."

Loewen dug up many examples of towns touting their whiteness. In 1907, Rogers, Ark., published a guide that announced: "Rogers has no Negroes or saloons." In 1936, Owosso, Mich., proudly declared: "There is not a Negro living in the limits of Owosso's incorporated territory." In 1958, the chairman of Maryville, Mo.'s Industrial Development Corp. touted his town to businessmen with this pitch:

"We don't have any niggers here in Maryville. . . . We had to lynch one back in 1931 . . . and the rest of them just up and left."

Driven out of rural towns, many Northern blacks moved to urban ghettos, where they joined Southern blacks who had fled Jim Crow segregation. Meanwhile, the rise of the automobile permitted whites to move to newly created suburbs, most of which, Loewen says, were designed to be all white.

"Almost all suburbs were sundown towns," he says.

He rattles off the names of celebrated American suburbs that once barred black people, and in some cases Jews -- Levittown, N.Y.; Dearborn, Mich.; Kenilworth, Ill.; Edina, Minn. and Darien, Conn., which achieved fame as the model for the town that barred Jews in the 1947 movie "Gentlemen's Agreement."

And, Loewen adds, Chevy Chase.

These suburbs did not post sundown signs. They saved their racist language for their legal documents, adding "restrictive covenants" to their deeds. Chevy Chase, for instance, had a restrictive covenant barring sale or lease to "any person of negro blood" or "any person of the Semetic [sic] race."

Washington Grove, the Montgomery County town, once had a restrictive covenant barring "anyone of a race whose death rate is of a higher percentage than that of the white or Caucasian race."

"It's tied to life expectancy," Loewen says, laughing. "They make it sound as if it's a health measure."

Greenbelt -- one of three model suburban communities built by the federal government in the 1930s -- was originally restricted to whites. In those days, the Federal Housing Administration advocated restrictive covenants, claiming that they "provide the surest protection against undesirable encroachment."

In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, banning discrimination in housing, and the Supreme Court ruled in Jones v. Mayer that housing discrimination was unconstitutional. Since then, Loewen says, "sundown towns have been in retreat."

But, he's quick to add, "there are still hundreds of towns where blacks would risk their mental well-being as well as their physical well-being by living in them."

Loewen's book has been favorably reviewed in several newspapers, including this one, but some historians say that he has taken his argument beyond the scope of his evidence.

"Those who are skeptical of Loewen's argument will find plenty of gaps in his research," Thomas J. Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania professor of history and sociology, writes in the liberal magazine the Nation. "Some of his most provocative assertions rest on tiny shards of evidence; in particular, he relies on oral histories and e-mails from residents of sundown towns, making it difficult to differentiate rumor from fact."

Another skeptic is Andrew Wiese, a history professor at San Diego State University whose book on blacks in suburbia, "Places of Their Own," was cited in "Sundown Towns."

"One thing that concerns me is the definition of sundown town, which is a little slippery and shifty," says Wiese. "It conflates places that practiced housing discrimination with places that forcibly kept blacks out after dark.

"What is a sundown town? It's a place that forcibly kept blacks out after dark. But that's different than a place like Scarsdale, New York, where black people could not buy a house but where many lived as gardeners and domestics and were not forced out after dark."

Loewen responds: "I don't think there's a big difference. I think many places where blacks could not buy a house were also places where blacks wouldn't be safe after dark. . . . I think suburbs tended to have a little more finesse [in their racism] but I'm not going to back off."

Unwritten Laws
Loewen searched the United States for sundown signs but found only one. It's in the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Ga. Once posted in an unidentified Connecticut town, its wording is pretty genteel as these things go: "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark."

Loewen had no better luck finding photographs of sundown signs. They're not the kind of pictures local librarians and historical societies tend to collect.

"I would ask a librarian, 'Do you have any photos of the sundown sign?' " he recalls. "And a typical reply would be, 'Why on earth would we keep that ?' "

But Loewen found abundant evidence of sundown signs in old newspaper stories.

In 1922, when college students in Norman, Okla., hired a black jazz band to play at a dance one night, a white mob carrying guns and nooses attacked the dance hall.

"Negroes are occasionally seen on the streets of Norman in the daytime, but the 'rule' that they leave at night is strictly enforced," the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch, a black newspaper, reported, and noted, "Several other Oklahoma towns have similar customs."

Among those other towns was Marlow, Okla. In 1923, a mob killed a Marlow hotel owner and the black man he'd hired as a janitor. The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, reported:

"Marlow's unwritten law, exemplified by prominent public signs bearing the command: 'Negro, don't let the sun go down on you here,' caused the death Monday night of A.W. Berch, prominent hotel owner, and the fatal wounding of Robert Jernigan, the first colored man who stayed here more than a day in years. Marlow, one of the several towns in Oklahoma which has not allowed our people to settle in their vicinity for years, has abided by the custom of permitting no members of the race to remain there after nightfall."

Nearly 40 years later, in 1962, black rocker Fats Domino played a gig in Rogers, Ark., and the Rogers Daily News ran a front-page editorial congratulating the town on its tolerance:

"The city which once had signs posted at the city limits and at the bus and rail terminals boasting 'Nigger, You Better Not Let the Sun Set on You in Rogers,' was hosting its first top name entertainer -- a Negro -- at night!"

Loewen found references to sundown signs in newspaper articles, memoirs and local histories as well as several works of American literature -- Tennessee Williams's "Orpheus Descending," William Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions."

The stories are invariably grim and depressing. Except for one.

That one was told by Herbert Aptheker, a pioneer of African American history, author of the seven-volume "A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States." But it's not a story Aptheker uncovered. It's a story he lived. He told it to the Los Angeles Times in 1994, nine years before he died in 2003 at 87.

It happened during World War II, when Aptheker, a white Jewish Communist from New York, commanded a group of black solders stationed at an Army base near Pollock, La., a town with a nasty sundown sign.

As part of their training, the soldiers were required to complete a 25-mile march. Aptheker and a black sergeant decided to march through Pollock -- at midnight.

"It was all arranged by the men," Aptheker recalled. "As we approached Pollock around midnight . . . we all began singing 'John Brown's Body' at the top of our voices -- a hundred black men with rifles and one crazy white man in front with a pistol."

Telling the story, Aptheker burst out laughing.

That might be the only comic moment in the long, grim history of sundown towns.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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