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James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

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Bibliography of Works that Should Mention Sundown Towns But DON’T

Even social scientists and historians who have done book-length studies of towns that keep out whites have often missed or ignored that aspect of the community. Probably the largest sundown area in the United States is the Ozark Plateau. In a 1936 study of the region, sociologist Walter Cralle did observe that African Americans had lived there and now did not: “Whereas in 1860 every border county … had Negro populations ranging from 6% to 15% of the total, the 1930 census finds only Cole County (7.2%) with more than 5% of its population Negro.” Cralle went on to note, “Ten Ozarks counties report no Negroes whatever, and four additional counties have only one.” He then essayed no explanation! These astounding population declines don’t seem to be a problem worth exploring. At least he noticed; anthropologists Carl Withers and Art Gallaher were oblivious. Withers published his book-length study of a Missouri Ozarks community, Wheatland, in 1940 as Plainville USA. Gallaher then studied the same town and wrote up his results as Plainville Fifteen Years Later. “Plainville” is supposed to be a typical town, so we do not need to know its name or location or even state. Withers presented as his entire discussion of race this footnote: “A very few Southern immigrants brought their slaves. However, no Negroes live now in the county.” No reader would infer from that note that Hickory County, Missouri, was a sundown county — but it was. Gallaher never mentioned race at all in his book or in his reflection on his and Withers’s works, “Plainville: The Twice-Studied Town.”

Social scientists studying Illinois towns did no better. During the Depression, Malcolm Brown and John Webb wrote Seven Stranded Coal Towns, a report for the federal government. All seven were sundown towns in Southern Illinois — most still are — yet the authors never mention that fact. In 1986, anthropologist John Coggeshall wrote about thirteen Southern Illinois communities; most were probably sundown towns when he wrote; I have confirmed at least five. Yet he never mentions the topic. Two full-length books on a Chicago suburb, Park Forest, further illustrate the blind spot. William H. Whyte Jr.’s The Organization Man came out in 1956 and established a new phrase in our language. Most of its last chapters treat where this “organization man” and his family live — the sundown suburb. Whyte devoted just one paragraph to Park Forest’s sundown nature:

Several years ago there was an acrid controversy over the possible admission of Negroes. It threatened to be deeply divisive — for a small group, admission of Negroes would be fulfillment of personal social ideals; for another, many of whom had just left Chicago wards which had been “taken over,” it was the return of a threat left behind. But the people who were perhaps most sorely vexed were the moderates. Most of them were against admission too, but though no Negroes ever did move in, the damage was done. The issue had been brought up, and the sheer fact that one had to talk about it made it impossible to maintain unblemished the ideal egalitarianism so cherished.

Whyte might have spent more than one paragraph on the matter. After all, Park Forest was operating illegally; in 1917 the Supreme Court had invalidated laws keeping African Americans out and in 1948 had made restrictive covenants unenforceable. Moreover, since Whyte focussed on managers’ values as expressed by their lifestyle and vice versa, surely the fact that every manager he studied chose to live in a sundown suburb is significant. What might that choice say about their readiness to hire African Americans to white collar (or even blue collar) positions in their businesses? But at least Whyte did mention that the suburbs excluded African Americans, that most whites were united against letting them in, and that discussing the matter was upsetting. Almost half a century later, Gregory Randall, a former native of Park Forest, wrote an entire monograph, America’s Original GI Town: Park Forest, Illinois (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000), on the town. Although he laments Whyte’s death as his book was in galleys and clearly was conversant with Whyte’s findings, Randall claims not to know for sure what Whyte knew for sure: that Park Forest was all-white by design. Interestingly, Randall admits that the people who ran Park Forest refused to rent to single people until 1956 — but he is unwilling to concede that the absence of African Americans was equally purposeful, decades after Whyte showed it to be. By the time he wrote, Park Forest had desegregated successfully, but Randall cannot tell that story, having never let on that it had been sundown.

Randall also supplies an extensive treatment of “the Greens” — Greenbelt, Maryland, just northeast of Washington, DC; Greenhills, Ohio, near Cincinnati; and Greendale, Wisconsin, southwest of Milwaukee, three planned towns built by the FDR administration — yet never mentions that all three were founded as sundown towns. In Toward New Towns for America (Boston: MIT Press, 1966), C. S. Stein similarly treats Radburn, New Jersey, the Greens, and other planned towns, all sundown towns, without ever mentioning race. This takes some doing; about Radburn, for example, Stein details the first residents’ occupations, religious denominations, educational backgrounds, and incomes, without once mentioning that all were white. In a dissertation written in 1936, Negro Migrant Labor in Pennsylvania 1916-30, Lewis James Carter tells of the conditions facing African American workers who migrated northward between 1910 and 1930. He notes that they went overwhelmingly to Pittsburg and Philadelphia, yet fails to address the possibility that restrictions may have played a role.

Authors of fiction have sometimes ignored sundown policies too. Laura Furman’s novel titled Tuxedo Park, for example, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1986), a domestic drama set in the sundown suburb of that name in New York, mentions the town’s exclusivity, but not its racial and religious exclusivity.

These omissions continue today. Authors of most of the entries on sundown towns in The Handbook of Texas Online omit both the all-white nature of their communities and its intentionality. So do most authors of entries on sundown suburbs in the Chicago Encyclopedia. Even the entry on Berwyn, notorious for its active Ku Klux Klan chapter and its participation in the 1951 Cicero race riot, never mentions race. Berwyn’s racial policies have drawn repeated attention from the national press, as recently as the 1990s. Nevertheless, author Elizabeth Patterson never hints at Berwyn’s intimidating reputation on racial matters.

Carrie Mott, Geographies of Whiteness (annotated bibliography)Oxford University Press. This book is mistitled. Actually, it treats the concept of whiteness in the academic field of geography. The result is an effete collection of sources with titles like “Discovering White Ethnicity and Parachuted Plurality.” Loewen could find no mention of the geographic distribution of whites or the geographic distribution of whiteness, two different things. Halfway through, we reach the subtitle “Historical Geographies of Whiteness,” but even here we find nothing about the geographic distribution of people by race, especially in the North. There are articles about discrimination facing migrant farm workers, including Jamaicans, in the Pacific Northwest, but no mention of the fact that some of the towns mentioned were sundown towns. It’s not really about geography; rather, it’s about concepts in the academic field of geography.