11. Determine human rights and responsibilities in the modern world.

Standard IV, Objective 2: Determine human rights and responsibilities in the world.
a. Identify rights considered essential for all humans (e.g. health care, education, safety, freedom from fear,
freedom of expression).
b. Propose steps individual students can take to protect these rights.

                           SUNDOWN TOWNS
Was your town a sundown town?
How to find out if your community intentionally excluded African
by James Loewen       Spring 2008 2.15.08

[James W. Loewen is a sociologist and best-selling author. His books include the
American Book Award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School
History Textbook Got Wrong and Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American
Racism. He is a member of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. ]

In the fall of 2001, I visited my hometown of Decatur, Illinois, to headline the second Decatur
Writers Conference. At the end of my address, which was on ideas I explored in my best-selling
book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, I
mentioned my ongoing research on American towns that are intentionally all white—sometimes
known as “sundown towns.” I invited those who knew something about the subject to come
forward and talk with me. To my amazement, twenty people came down, and they told me
stories about every town around Decatur.

Growing up, I knew these towns were all white, but it never occurred to me that this might be on
purpose. But yes, every one of these towns prohibited black residents, and so, that evening, the
idea that intentional sundown towns were everywhere in America, or at least everywhere in the
Midwest, hit me right between the eyes.

I resolved to write a book about the Sundown Town phenomenon. Initially, I imagined I would
find maybe ten of these communities in Illinois, where I planned more research than in any other
single state, and perhaps fifty across the country. To my astonishment, I have found 500
sundown towns in Illinois alone—and now estimate that, by 1970, their peak, 10,000 existed in
the United States.
Sundown towns are communities that for decades—formally or informally—kept out African
Americans or other groups. They are so named because some marked their city limits with
placards like the one a former resident of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, remembers from the early
1960s: “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In Our Town.” The term itself was rarely
used east of Ohio, but intentionally white communities were common in the East, indeed
throughout the nation—except in the traditional South, where they were rare.

Independent sundown towns range in size from hamlets like Alix, Arkansas, population 185, to
large cities like Appleton, Wisconsin, with 57,000 residents in 1970. Sometimes entire counties
went sundown, usually when their county seats did. “Sundown suburbs” could be even larger,
such as Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles; Levittown, on Long Island; and Warren, a Detroit

Sundown towns weren’t always all-white. Between 1890 and 1954, thousands of independent
communities across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid
African Americans from living in them. Sundown suburbs formed a little later, mostly from 1900
to 1968. Often as a suburb formed or shortly thereafter, it got rid of black residents who lived
there prior to incorporation. African Americans were among the earliest residents of what
became Edina, for example, the most prestigious suburb of Minneapolis, but in the years after
World War I they were barred from its newer subdivisions, and by 1930 they had moved into
Minneapolis. Around that time, the slogan in Edina became: “Not one Negro and not one Jew,”
and except for live-in servants, it didn’t have any. After World War II, suburb after suburb
required all its residential subdivisions to have restrictive covenants stating, in the words of a
California example, “No negro, japanese or chinese or any person of african or mongolian
descent shall own or occupy any part of said premises.”

In 1968, all this began to change. The federal government passed Title VIII of the Civil Rights
Act, commonly referred to as the “Fair Housing Act”; in addition, in Jones v. Mayer, the
Supreme Court held that an 1866 civil rights law bars discrimination in the rental and sale of
property. As a result, since 1968 no town (or neighborhood) states openly that it is all white on
purpose. Unfortunately, neither the law nor the decision was self-enforcing. In many towns,
discrimination simply went underground.

Many communities remain all-white today; whether blacks can reside safely and comfortably
within them remains unclear. Some towns and neighborhoods have stayed white by dint of
“DWB” violations (harassment by police for “driving while black”), realtor steering, shunning,
and other bad behavior by white individuals; violence or threats of same (sometimes directed
against the children of the family); and other informal policies.

Some progress has taken place across the country. Towns that in the past kept out Mexicans,
Asian Americans, Jews, or Native Americans no longer exclude them today. Sadly, African
Americans are often still barred from these communities. More promising still is the fact that
more than half of all former sundown towns no longer exclude anyone and now boast an
increasing (though small) number of African American households.

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