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James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

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How to Research and Teach About Sundown Towns

Let me supply my sources for judging that two towns were sundown and explain why I assess them credible. Doing so will help you decide if you should trust my judgment. The first is a piece of oral history that I trusted. The second is a piece of written history — well, email — that I almost credit, pending additional confirmation. First is a telephone conversation I had in June, 2002, with Loren Weaver, white, about 80, long-time resident of Marion, Indiana. About nearby Gas City, Weaver said:

They used to have an iron bridge on the state highway going to Gas City, over the Mississinewa River. “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Back In Gas City.” That was in the late ’30s or early ’40s. The bridge was gone when I came back [from World War II].

The specificity of his memory as to location, type of bridge, year, etc., persuaded me to believe Weaver. Moreover, four other people also identified Gas City as sundown to me. I then asked Weaver about two smaller communities near Marion:

[What about Sweetser and Swayzee? Were they sundown towns?]
“I’ve heard it but I can’t verify it.”
[“Do you think I’m wrong to believe that?”]
“No!” said with emphasis. “No, I don’t.”

Weaver’s thoughtful and forceful demeanor convinced me that I should list Sweetser and Swayzee. Later an African American interviewee concurred. Perhaps some readers will be shocked that I listed the towns based on just these two sources, confirmed of course by their all-white populations in census after census. I could not go to both towns and interview a dozen people in each — not while trying to confirm hundreds of other towns across the United States. My best judgment as a sociologist and historian is that both communities are sundown. I would note that my original bias ran in the opposite direction: I had imagined, “What African Americans would want to go to such small towns!” [Loren Weaver, 6/2002.]

My second example comes from a well-known historian, Clayton Cramer. In 1998 he sent the following information about Torrance, California.

Up to the 1950s, there was a city park in Torrance that was popularly known as “Nigger Park.” Why? Because in the 1930s, probably because of the widespread racially restrictive covenants in the Los Angeles area, blacks in Torrance were nearly all confined to a very small area, many living in one city block that was all black. Anti-black sentiment rising to a peak, a mob drove out the blacks that lived in this block, and their homes were burned to the ground, fortunately without loss of life. Not surprisingly, the former residents left the area, abandoning the lots completely. (Not implausible — land was cheap in Los Angeles in the 1930s.) Eventually, as property taxes weren’t being paid, the city ended up with title to all the land as a result of tax sales — and since the land was now clear, they turned it into a park.

Why didn’t I allow this email to “nail” Torrance? First, the census never shows any substantial number of African Americans in Torrance. Of course, they could have moved in between censuses, then been thrown out, or census takers could have missed them, or the black neighborhood might have been outside the city limits. Second, Cramer’s information was fourth-hand by the time it reached me. I asked him how he knew it, and he replied, “I learned out about it from a co-worker whose wife grew up in Torrance.” Cramer agreed the information needs verification. Ron Terrazas, who grew up in Torrance in the 1950s and ’60s, did confirm that its schools were all-white when he attended, and when he asked residents why it was so white, “my inquiries generally were answered with the statement that the restriction was done at the ‘real estate’ agent level.” Moreover, African Americans he met in college thought Torrance was a sundown suburb. I would bet Torrance was a sundown suburb but feel I need more information to confirm it. [Clayton Cramer, post to slavery discussion list, 2/1998; Cramer, email, 7/2003; Ron Terrazas, email, 4/2003.]