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ON TV TONIGHT, Feb. 24, 2014: Investigation Discovery Explores Whether the Sun Has Set On the Exclusionary Practice of Sundown Towns in Modern-Day America
Silver Spring, MD (Special to Huntingtonnews.net) – Don’t let the sun set on you in a sundown town.
That’s what signs at the city limits of all-white communities warned when African-Americans were not allowed to live there or even visit after the sun set. This method of exclusion was often held by an official policy or restrictive covenant-.
The practice of excluding blacks from American towns was so prevalent that, by 1936, it became the impetus for Harlem civic leader Victor Green to pen the Negro Motorist Green-Book, a guide designed to help African-American travelers avoid places where they could be harassed, threatened, or even killed. Today, it is illegal for sundown towns to exist on paper due to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but some believe that communities remain sundown by reputation and reluctance to diversify.
In the fourth installment of Investigation Discovery’s Black History Month anthology THE INJUSTICE FILES, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp takes a cross-country road trip to explore whether these exclusionary practices still exist today. Produced exclusively for Investigation Discovery by Al Roker Entertainment, THE INJUSTICE FILES: SUNDOWN TOWNS one-hour special premieres Monday, February 24, 2014 at 8/7c.
“We are thrilled to work with Keith Beauchamp, one of America’s leading investigative filmmakers, and the revered team at Al Roker Entertainment on this fourth installment in the INJUSTICE FILES anthology, which has built a reputation for exposing unresolved Civil Rights cases and modern-day discrimination,” said Kevin Bennett, general manager of Investigation Discovery. “We hope this special draws attention to racial discrimination cases that deserve closure and inspires viewers to push for progress on civil rights issues that are affecting their hometown communities.”
“It is unbelievable to find that sundown towns may still be a reality in the United States,” said Al Roker, CEO of Al Roker Entertainment. “We appreciate the opportunity to work with Investigation Discovery to shed light on a situation that many people don’t even realize could be in their own backyards.”
“When we set out to film THE INJUSTICE FILES: SUNDOWN TOWNS, my objective was to challenge the opinion that sundown towns still exist in America today. Can African-Americans really travel wherever they please in this modern America?” Beauchamp said. “Now having visited communities that were historically known as sundown towns, I am left with the sense that rules may have changed by the book, but towns still exist where the social standard hasn’t been reset.”
Beauchamp explains that sundown towns are largely a northern phenomenon born from how African-Americans in the region typically made their living. Work largely consisted of daytime domestic responsibilities and thus nightly curfews were created to encourage African-American workers to leave town promptly at the end of their shift. THE INJUSTICE FILES: SUNDOWN TOWNS travels to three historically-sundown towns in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio:
Martinsville, IN – Beauchamp and his crew travel to Martinsville, where they go undercover to investigate the case of CAROL JENKINS, a 21-year-old African-American woman. On September 16, 1968, Jenkins found herself in town after dark while selling encyclopedias door to door. She was harassed by two men in a car following her and sought refuge in the home of white local residents Don and Norma Neal, who would become the last people to see Jenkins alive after she thanked them for their hospitality and disappeared into the darkness. She was killed 30 minutes later just a few blocks away. Forty-five years later, the case remains unresolved and Jenkins’ family is still looking for closure. The Neals take Beauchamp to the very spot where Jenkins took her last breath.
Vienna, IL – In Vienna, Beauchamp meets Dr. James Loewen, best-selling author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, who sheds historical light on the discriminatory practice. They retrace the steps of a horrific 1954 attack that lead to the banishment of an entire African-American community, resulting in what became an all-white town overnight. It was alleged that two black men killed an elderly white woman and tried to rape her teenage granddaughter. The white residents of Vienna became enraged and burned the black neighborhood to the ground, thus “cleansing” the town of its African-American population. Beauchamp and Dr. Loewen drive through the deep woods looking for what’s left of the black community, the most obvious remnant being the ruin of a bridge that used to divide the black side of town from the white side. After the burning, the bridge was abandoned and now lingers as a reminder of that separation.
Waverly, OH – Waverly is one of the few sundown towns that existed before the Civil War, with its reputation traceable back to the mid-17th century. In 1830, the Downing family donated the town square under the condition that no African-Americans live within the city limits. Flash forward 150 years and the attitude of Waverly residents toward American-Americans had changed little. DR. DAVID HOXIE speaks on television for the first time about his experience setting up a medical practice in Waverly in 1997 and his claim that the community ran him out of town in 2004 after years of enduring what he calls “a toxic potion” of “racism, professional jealousy, material envy.” Beauchamp explains that this and hundreds of towns used to have signs at their town borders that read, “Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark.”
THE INJUSTICE FILES: SUNDOWN TOWNS is produced for Investigation Discovery by Al Roker Entertainment with executive producers Al Roker, Keith Beauchamp, and Dan Bowen. For Investigation Discovery, Lorna Thomas is executive producer, Sara Kozak is SVP of production, Kevin Bennett is general manager, and Henry Schleiff is Group President of Investigation Discovery, Destination America, and American Heroes Channel.
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Posted by David Kinchen on July 22, 2006
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Hinton, WV – During his research for “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” (The New Press, $29.95, 576 pages, illustrated, indexed, annotated) sociologist James W. Loewen stopped at a convenience store in the southern Illinois town of Anna. He asked the clerk if the name was indeed an acronym for “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed” – as he had heard. He got an affirmative answer. This was in 2001.
Ever since the small community’s black population had been forcibly driven out of town in 1909, Anna was among the estimated 70 percent of towns in Abe Lincoln’s home state – and mine – that became “Sundown Towns” in the process that came to be called by historians as “The Nadir.”
Sundown Towns – and I’m going to capitalize the combination and similar ones to emphasize the implied hatred — were places that allowed no blacks to live inside the community or be in the community during the nighttime hours. Illinois – also Loewen’s home state – had and may still have one of the largest percentages of Sundown Towns – and Sundown Suburbs – of any state in the nation, Loewen writes. Only California rivals it in the percentage of towns that from 1890 to about 1950 and beyond – the height of the “Nadir” –excluded blacks, Asians, Jews and often Catholics from buying or renting property.
The traditional South was racist, writes Loewen (“Lies My Teacher Told Me”), who lived in and taught in Mississippi, but Sundown Towns were largely a Midwestern, Border State (including Southwestern Virginia and the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina), Northeastern and Western phenomenon.
Before “The Nadir” (nadir means “lowest point…point of greatest adversity or despair”) blacks not only were not excluded but were welcomed in places like Fond du Lac, Wis., later one of the many Sundown Towns in a state not widely known for racial exclusion. Other Wisconsin Sundown Towns included Appleton and Manitowoc, each comparable in size to Charleston, WV. After the exclusion began, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, California, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Arizona became as racist as any state in the South, Loewen writes.
Today, he lives in a neighborhood he describes as 80 percent black in Washington, D.C. and is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Vermont – a state that had Sundown Towns. Maybe that’s why it has a tiny percentage of black residents. Maine and Minnesota had – and probably still have Sundown Towns and suburbs. The wealthiest suburb of Minneapolis, Edina, was a Sundown Suburb from the start, with restrictive covenants banning blacks and Jews from owning property.
To those who ask why would any black want to live in a hellhole like Anna – (growing up in Rochelle, Ill., 35 miles south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, I considered everything south of LaSalle-Peru a hellhole! L-P, twin cities, were both Sundown Towns) – Loewen responds by saying why should blacks – and Jews, Hispanics, Asians, Hindus, Sikhs, Italians – be asked this question if it wasn’t required of WASPs. Why do I live in Hinton, WV (not now and never a Sundown Town)? Because I like it and can afford to live here but not in some other places I like a lot, such as Chicago.
West Virginia’s Sundown Towns include Follansbee, near Weirton in the Northern Panhandle, Loewen writes. He vividly describes a black resident of Bluefield, WV, which has a substantial black population, of being sure to exit Grundy and Buchanan County, VA (a Sundown Town in a Sundown County) before nightfall. I have a feeling that Union (Monroe County) and Lewisburg-Fairlea (Greenbrier County) were or still are Sundown Towns; more research is necessary. White Sulphur Springs isn’t, largely because The Greenbrier resort needs the valuable service of blacks to stay in business!
Now that I look back, Rochelle, about 25 miles south of Rockford and 80 miles west of State and Madison in Chicago was a Sundown Town. There were no black students in Rochelle Township High School which I attended from 1953 to 1957. The first blacks I came in contact with were in college 17 miles to the east at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
Rochelle was a solidly Republican town; most Sundown Towns, Loewen writes, were solidly Democratic, the white man’s party and the party of the Ku Klux Klan right up to 1964. Pekin, Illinois, home of the “Chinks” and later the “Dragons” was a KKK center in Illinois; Pekin was a Sundown Town, as were most of the cities along the Illinois River – except for Peoria.
Martinsville, Indiana, between Indianapolis and Bloomington, was also a Sundown Town and Kluxer haven. Its development director today laments its virtual exclusion by companies seeking to locate factories and businesses; Loewen correctly says that few companies today will locate in or near a Sundown Town.
California has an undeserved reputation for tolerance. It has redneck towns like Taft, near Bakersfield, settled by whites from Oklahoma, one of the most racist states in the nation, Loewen writes. Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma, was a large Sundown Town until recently. California infamously drove its Chinese population out of towns like Eureka and Rocklin, a suburb of Sacramento, in the 19th Century. The whole Palos Verdes Peninsula – except for the port community of San Pedro – was off limits to blacks and Jews. Hawthorne, Maywood, San Marino, Burbank, Glendale are just a few of the communities in the Los Angeles area that were or still are Sundown Suburbs. In the San Fernando Valley, where I lived when I worked for the Los Angeles Times, Pacoima was a designated black ghetto; few blacks – other than a celebrity or two, like Michael Jackson in Encino – lived in other parts of the Valley until well into the 1980s.
The nation’s two most segregated metropolitan areas are in my native Midwest: Detroit and Milwaukee. I can personally attest to Milwaukee’s segregation, where 96 percent of the metro area’s black population lives within the city of Milwaukee. Whitefish Bay, an affluent northern suburb of Milwaukee, was often called “Whitefolks Bay.” I covered the ‘burbs and real estate for The Milwaukee Sentinel from 1967 to 1976, so I saw firsthand the total exclusion of blacks – and often Jews – from the desirable suburbs with their excellent schools.
The Milwaukee area also included the federal new town of Greendale, built in the 1930s with racial exclusion from the start. The nation’s other “Green” towns included Greenbelt, Md. and Greenhills, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. All had restrictive covenants forbidding blacks from purchasing property in the city limits. West Virginia had a new town called Arthurdale (Preston County) that also excluded blacks. Another was Boulder City, Nev., built to house workers – but not black workers – building Boulder (Hoover) Dam. Black workers had to commute from their Sundown Ghetto in Las Vegas.
From the start, the three Levittowns (Long Island, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) excluded blacks – including black World War II veterans – from buying houses in developments created by a Jew, William Levitt, who lived in the exclusive and mostly Jew-free North Shore Long Island community of Manhasset. Levitt, under pressure from fair housing groups and the government, later changed his policy, but only the New Jersey Levitttown – now called Willingboro – has a substantial black population.
Loewen debunks the myth of a steady pace of “uninterrupted progress” that textbooks posit to describe race relations in America – what Swedish writer Gunnar Myrdal described in 1944 as “The American Dilemma.” During the Civil War, in 1863, Anna, Illinois – in Union County, no less — ethnically cleansed its black population, only to have the blacks returned by the Union Army and the town reprimanded. This didn’t occur after the lynching of a black man for allegedly murdering an Anna woman in 1909 that returned the town to its all-white status.
I recommend this book to those whose minds have been warped by textbooks –- a category that includes all of us. Loewen holds out more hope than do I for an integrated America, what with everyone worried about property values today and in the past. Property values haven’t dropped in Oak Park, Illinois, west of Chicago, as the town has become successfully integrated. On the contrary, house values in the city with the most Frank Lloyd Wright houses of any in the nation have risen more rapidly than any other Chicago suburb as the population of Oak Park has grown to be about 20 percent black, Loewen says.