[Marxism] White only towns

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 25 12:18:33 MDT 2005

Darkness on the Edge of Town
A bold book argues that thousands of American towns were deliberately kept 

Reviewed by Laura Wexler
Sunday, October 23, 2005; BW03


A Hidden Dimension of American Racism

By James W. Loewen

New Press. 562 pp. $29.95

In Oct. 2001, James W. Loewen stopped at a convenience store in the small 
Illinois town of Anna -- a name that, as a store clerk confirmed, stands 
for "Ain't No Niggers Allowed."

On Nov. 8, 1909, nearly a century before Loewen stepped into the store, a 
mob of angry white citizens drove out Anna's 40 or so black families 
following the lynching in a nearby town of a black man accused of raping a 
white woman. Anna became all-white literally overnight, Loewen reports, and 
embraced racial exclusiveness for the long haul. According to the 2000 
census, just one family with a black member lives among Anna's 7,000 residents.

Anna is far from unique, as Loewen, a sociologist, argues in his powerful 
and important new book, Sundown Towns . On the contrary, Loewen reports 
that -- beginning in roughly 1890 with the end of Reconstruction and 
continuing until the fair-housing legislation of the late 1960s -- whites 
in America created thousands of whites-only towns, commonly known as 
"sundown towns" owing to the signs often posted at their city limits that 
warned, as one did in Hawthorne, Calif., in the 1930s: "Nigger, Don't Let 
The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne." In fact, Loewen claims that, during that 
70-year period, outside the traditional South, "probably a majority of all 
incorporated places [in the United States] kept out African Americans."

Such a bold claim would seem to require an exact count of sundown towns to 
back it up. But Loewen admits that the challenges of uncovering and 
confirming the existence of each sundown town -- when everything from 
census figures to local histories proved misleading -- limited his ability 
to nail down an exact figure. Instead, he writes, "I believe at least 3,000 
and perhaps as many as 15,000 independent towns went sundown in the United 
States, mostly between 1890 and about 1930."

This vagueness, along with Loewen's almost evangelical passion for his 
material, raises questions of credibility -- or at least of potential 
overstatement. But Loewen expertly dodges those accusations. He devotes 
almost an entire chapter to explaining his research -- detailing his 
rationale for defining sundown towns, laying out his statistical methods 
and revealing how he triangulated oral history, written sources and census 
data to arrive at a "confirmation." So when he reports that he's personally 
verified the existence of roughly 1,000 sundown towns between 1890 and 
1930, you believe him. And because he pairs that finding with an analysis 
of the history, causes and patterns of sundown towns that shows that they 
were, in many ways, as logical -- and often as violent -- an outgrowth of 
American racism as lynching, he ultimately makes a strong case that sundown 
towns were a significant feature of the American landscape. As is often the 
case when the subject is race, the relative lack of hard evidence 
ultimately becomes part of the story, rather than a hindrance to it.

As in Anna, whites in about 50 towns used mob violence to expel and keep 
out African Americans, and many more relied on the threat of violence, 
Loewen reports. Some towns, he writes, passed "legal" ordinances banning 
hiring blacks or renting or selling them homes; others relied on citizens 
to pay informal visits to warn visiting African Americans that they "must 
not remain in the town." In 1960, the press reported that realtors in 
Grosse Pointe, Mich., had conceived of an altogether more clinical way to 
insure racial exclusivity: a "point system" used to assess a potential 
buyer's eligibility that included a rating for swarthiness.

Often, Sundown Towns argues, a community used a variety of methods in order 
to remain all-white through the years. To demonstrate this, Loewen charts 
the course of segregation in Wyandotte, Mich.: In the early 1870s, whites 
there drove out a black barber; in 1881 and 1888, they expelled the town's 
black hotel workers; in 1907, four white men beat and robbed a black man at 
the train station; nine years later, a mob of white townspeople "bombarded" 
a boardinghouse, driving out all the African Americans and killing one. "In 
the 1940s," Loewen writes, "police arrested or warned African Americans for 
'loitering suspiciously in the business district' or being in the park, and 
white children stoned African American children in front of Roosevelt High 
School." In the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania professor who 
grew up in Wyandotte told him, all the members of a black family who moved 
into town ended up dead.

If Loewen's first priority is to unveil what he calls the "hidden history" 
of sundown towns, his second is to debunk the widely held idea that when 
the issue is race, the South is always "the scene of the crime," as James 
Baldwin famously wrote. The incidence of sundown communities in the South, 
Loewen reports, was actually far lower than it was in a Midwestern state 
such as Illinois, in which roughly 70 percent of towns were sundown towns 
in 1970. "This does not make whites in the traditional South less racist 
than [those] in . . . other regions of the country," he suggests.

With the rise of the automobile, among other things, came the birth of 
sundown suburbs. In 1909, Loewen reports, Chevy Chase, Md., became one of 
the nation's first after the owner of the Chevy Chase Land Company sued a 
developer to whom it had sold a parcel of land because of rumors that he 
planned to build affordable housing for African American workers. The 
company ultimately prevented the development, and the land sat vacant for 
decades before becoming home to Saks Fifth Avenue, its current resident. No 
doubt, the owner of the Chevy Chase Land Company would approve of the 
suburb's current racial makeup; in 2000, Loewen writes, "its 6,183 
residents included just 18 people living in families with at least one 
African American householder." But even that isn't white enough anymore, 
Loewen charges: Whites are increasingly fleeing nearly all-white suburbs 
for lily-white exurbs, adding sprawl to the already numerous economic, 
psychological and sociological tolls of residential segregation.

Much has been written about the history of segregation within American 
cities, but this is the first full-length study of places that sought to 
exclude African Americans entirely. Loewen's desire to be exhaustive is 
therefore understandable. But in this case, exhaustive sometimes means 
exhausting. The book would have been more enjoyable to read had Loewen 
focused in depth on a few representative sundown towns, teasing out the 
history and sociology of the phenomenon in a more narrative, less 
textbook-like form.

That said, for its meticulous research and passionate chronicling of the 
complex and often shocking history of whites-only communities, Sundown 
Towns deserves to become an instant classic in the fields of American race 
relations, urban studies and cultural geography. After reading it, you'll 
view your own community, and the whole of the American landscape, more 
suspiciously -- and rightly so.

Laura Wexler is the author of "Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching 
in America."



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