Home > Uncategorized > Sundown Towns and the Great Retreat – posted 7/26/2020

Sundown Towns and the Great Retreat – posted 7/26/2020

One positive by-product of the Black Lives Matter movement is a new willingness to honestly explore our national history. I think this has been reflected in efforts like the New York Times 1619 Project. American history, as conventionally told, has big gap areas. Much about America’s racial history is left out or misunderstood.

I have been interested in the question of how we got to be so racially segregated as a nation. Residential segregation receives surprisingly little attention as a subject.

Until recently, I had never heard the term “sundown town”. In his book “Sundown Towns”, the writer James Loewen defines sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus “all-white” on purpose”.

Loewen argues that sundown towns exist almost everywhere in America although almost no literature exists on the subject. He says sundown towns are a bigger issue in the North than the South. His argument flies in the face of the usual good North/bad South racial narrative. The North has its own horrible racist story.

I must say I immediately wondered about New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Has northern New England always been so white? Was there ever a time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century when more African Americans did live in a wider range of locations in the area? I know Portsmouth and the Seacoast have had some black history but it is hard to find information about other places in Northern New England.

Loewen offers some provocative ideas about our racial history. He points to the years 1890 to 1940 as being decisive. That period is often considered the low point of American race relations. Support for civil rights generally and particularly the rights of African Americans seriously deteriorated. The Republican Party stopped being an anti-racist force. The Democrats were known as “the white man’s party”. No political party supported African American rights.

It was the era when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v Ferguson, justifying segregation. Jim Crow laws proliferated and Presidents like Woodrow Wilson were openly white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a rebirth and its membership grew dramatically. Rather than racism being seen as a problem, white Americans generally blamed black Americans for their inferior status. A racist culture demonized black people.

From the perspective of 2020, it is hard to appreciate how racist the United States became in this earlier period. Many have probably heard of the Great Migration when black people left the South in droves to stake out a new life in the North. The story is beautifully told in Isabel Wilkerson’s book “The Warmth of Other Suns”.

Much less well known is a movement Loewen calls the Great Retreat. White people started forcing African Americans out of towns, suburbs and rural areas across the North and Midwest into ghettos in the large cities. The forced withdrawal happened by multiple means. Violent expulsions, lynchings, the use of threats and legal ordinances, freeze-outs by creating a hostile atmosphere, buy-outs and the use of devices like restrictive covenants were all part of the picture.

Loewen shows the Great Retreat by examining the population of African Americans by county. Between 1890 and 1930, the absolute number of African Americans in many northern counties and towns plummeted. Many northern counties that previously had African American residents in 1890 no longer had them by 1930.

While we are just learning about historical events like the massacre against the Black community in Tulsa in 1921, it would appear that ethnic cleansing against African Americans was widespread across the United States. Little race riots broke out in many places during the 1890 to 1940 period but historians have not written about it.

The typical scenario was a supposed act of violence committed against a white person that led to a white riot. Sometimes it was an alleged rape featuring a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.

In Springfield Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1844 to 1861, white rioters destroyed the black business district in 1908 following what turned out to be a false accusation of rape. The mob wanted a lynching but when they were foiled by the sheriff they went on a two-day rampage. The rampage ultimately did end in two innocent black men being lynched.

The goal of the riot was to drive black people out of Springfield. Out of a total black population of 3,100 in a city of 48,000, over 2,000 black people fled Springfield. No one was ever convicted for murder, arson, or any other crimes committed against African Americans in Springfield.

Loewen wrote that Springfield was a prototype for small race riots that happened in many other communities that wanted to become all-white. This ethnic cleansing has become hidden history in America. We have buried it and pretend there is no relationship between this past and our still largely segregated present.

Americans do like to show the sunny side. Whether the reason for this historical suppression is shame, embarrassment, adverse business consequences or straight up racism, we are late in the day for silence.

If we are ever going to address the structures of institutional racism, we need to understand history and how exclusion worked. Sundown towns are a national issue. Understanding the truth about exclusion is an ongoing project that has barely begun.

Residential segregation remains an overwhelming fact of life in America. Secrecy about our history helps the racism endure. A renewed commitment to racial integration in all neighborhoods must become part of 21st century politics.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Brian
    July 26, 2020 at 10:57 pm

    Hi Jon,
    I appreciate your articles digging into relevant and eclectic bits of history. One note, though, Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, not Illinois. Keep up the good work.
    Brian

    • July 26, 2020 at 11:05 pm

      Thanks Brian. Oops. My bad.

  2. Patricia Dawson
    July 28, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    As always, nicely done. Thank you.

  3. Tom Chase, Northwood, NH
    August 1, 2020 at 5:51 pm

    I enjoyed your Sundown Town piece. I’m from Baltimore originally, and commend to you Antero Pietila’s book “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a (once) Great American City.” You will find a summery on Amazon. Baltimore is – like other East Coast cities – a collection of ghettos. Some more naturally occurring, some created by developers and “urban renewal.” It reveals what happened when the “town” was too big to cleanse.

    • August 1, 2020 at 11:32 pm

      Thanks Tom! And thanks for the book recommendation. I am from Philadelphia originally and there is much to say about ghettos there. I grew up in the time of Frank Rizzo. Philadelphia was my education in racism. I lived close to the city line so I saw both sides. Anyway, thanks for reading my piece.

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