3.19.2009

American Racism Unveiled

The period of Reconstruction beginning 1865 to 1877 is crucial to understanding America's present-day racial tensions. Although these tensions have subsided dramatically since the mid-1990s, American youth today and I would argue the older generations, have failed to acknowledge and understand the dichotomy of race and racial constructs since social darwinism raised its ugly head in the 1860s. The most prevalent existence of American racism persists in what Whites deemed 'utopia' back in the 1920s. This 'utopia' would emerge out of the growing pollution, immigrant infestation, and overcrowdedness of northern cities. It was this 'utopia' that would define the American dream and would enable Whites of middle and upper-class stature to create their own communities outside of the muck-ridden cities. I am talking about Suburbia, that which would not exist without the endless stretches of highway and commercial developments generating on every corner. But at what cost? And to whose benefit?

After the Union Army left southern Blacks to 'fend for themselves' in 1877, the real focus on American domestic policy was to feed the cities and burgeoning industry. Interestingly enough, many Blacks in the south became enfranchised politically and held high political jobs in Congress and local legislatures. South Carolina and Georgia would boast a growing number of African-Americans in their state legislatures in the 1870s, offering them political agency that was unparalleled in any northern city. But the fear that Blacks may 'infiltrate' and downgrade the political system was evident among Whites. D.W. Griffith's silent film, 'Birth of a Nation', portrayed Blacks in their legislatures as idle, lazy, and uninterested in politics. In fact from the 1890s and onward, White Democrats made it their southern policy to disenfranchise most if not all Black politicians from their state legislatures. They would instill what would be termed, "Jim Crow" laws, that is, racial laws that emulated the 'Black laws' under slavery. From this point forward, the deep South kept Blacks from voting, intimidated Blacks from holding high status jobs, and instilled fear into the hearts of Blacks via the growing fraternity, the Ku Klux Klan.












[Grosse Pointe, MI boasts a sign outside of the park requiring a park pass for entry.]
It is to no one's surprise that Blacks felt the need to migrate north, after all, this area was deemed 'freedomland' prior and during the Civil War and raised moral awareness against slavery since its inception. But once Blacks migrated north, they found themselves more discriminated against than ever before. This is most evident in the rise of 'Sundown Towns' throughout the north. What was a 'Sundown Town'? "A sundown town is any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus 'all-white' on purpose" (Loewen, 4). The term 'sundown' reflects the reality that African Americans could work in these towns, but had to leave by sundown. In fact, most sundown towns had signs posted throughout the borders of the town telling Blacks to leave by sundown. Interestingly enough, these towns ONLY existed in the north! Furthermore, thousands of these sundown towns were in the Midwest states like Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. What makes this so disturbing is that many of these sundown towns continued to post their signs well into the late 1960s!

Why is all of this relevant today? Think about it, how many African-American families resided in your suburban neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s? If you can boast more than three families within a three-block radius, than chances are your town was not sundown. But what about those homogenous communities that never emulated multi-racial realities or ethnic diversity? Chances are you resided in a 'sundown' town.

There are many reasons why towns went sundown after the 1890s and into the 1930s. Factors like increased crime, labor relations, miscegenation, etc. But all of these reasons provide little to no justification for a town to at one point house many African-American families and then go completely 'sundown'. For example, many Blacks served as strikebreakers in small mining towns in Illinois and Indiana. However, many were part of the United Miners' Union, protecting workers' rights in small mining towns. Regardless, Blacks were lynched or told to move their homes and families out of the town, resulting in a 'sundown' town. Moreover, if one African American set afire a White man's house, the entire Black community would be punished and therefore, many would be forced to leave the town. This illustrates that even though there were factors for a town becoming sundown, the justifications are most heavily dependable on racism than any other factor alone.

I did not know about sundown towns until a sociologist colleague of mine brought it to my attention. After learning that a few towns within Lorain County itself were sundown at some point, I was able to piece together why certain towns lacked a Black population if any, while other towns boasted a decent minority, such as Oberlin, OH. I encourage you to look into the history of your own town to find out whether or not it was at some point sundown. Perhaps then you may begin to understand the history and future of American race relations.

For more information on 'Sundown towns' and a comprehensive list of towns that were sundown, I strongly encourage James W. Loewen's book entitled, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism published by Simon & Schuster, NY, 2005 OR
check out James W. Loewen's site, http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/sundowntowns.php