Home » Ohio » Niles

James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.



Basic Information

Type of Place
Independent City or Town
Metro Area
Politics c. 1860?
Don’t Know
Unions, Organized Labor?
Don’t Know

Sundown Town Status

Sundown Town in the Past?
Was there an ordinance?
Don't Know
Yes, Strong Oral Tradition
Year of Greatest Interest
Still Sundown?
Probably Not, Although Still Very Few Black People

Census Information

The available census data from 1860 to the present
Total White Black Asian Native Hispanic Other BHshld
1890 4288 0
1900 7468 1
1910 8361 1
1920 13080 2
1930 16314 214
1940 16273 215
1970 21581 258
1980 23072 351
1990 20597 414
2000 20932 475 39 69
2010 19266 667 35 139

Method of Exclusion

  • Threat of Violence
  • Realtors
  • Reputation

Main Ethnic Group(s)

  • Unknown

Group(s) Excluded

  • Black


Testimony of a local resident:
“When I was young and growing up in Warren Ohio our neighboring town Niles had such a ‘Nigger don’t let the sun set on you’ sign at the city limits.”

“There was a very small black population in Niles. A sign near the Erie Depot %u2014 placed there by unknown sources %u2014 warned ‘niggers’ that they had better not ‘let the sun set on their heads.’ For the most part blacks heeded the advice.”
[William D. Jenkins, Steel Valley Klan (Kent: Kent State UP, 1990), 65.]

Testimony of a resident:
“My Irish Catholic family has resided in Niles, Ohio for well over one hundred years (which is a long time in an immigrant community), and I can tell you from personal experience how racist this city is. I don’t know how appropriate it would be to include Niles in a list with these other cities, however, because its Whiteness is about the only thing it has in common historically with the other cities. In my opinion, one of the main reasons that segregation (actually, exclusion) of African Americans has flourished here is a pervasive atmosphere of lawlessness. Organized crime dominates every aspect of public and private life.
In my memory, there have been no legal challenges made to local real estate practices. Indeed, there have been few legal challenges to any of the unlawful local policies that govern life in this city, and those have come only within the last two or three years. Corruption of all kinds is found in local housing. It is common knowledge that local landlords discriminate based on race. It is also common knowledge that there are only a few “connected” building contractors that are issued permits for new construction. Those contractors, of course, are racist themselves and refuse to build for African Americans. Even the housing that is subsidized by HUD is almost all White. These practices will continue until they are challenged in federal court, which I both look forward to and fear, since I well know how a case like this can bankrupt a city…. Every single person in my neighborhood is white. Not suprisingly, the atmosphere is also very anti-woman and anti-gay.
I have no knowledge of any such sundown sign in Niles, although this deserves investigation. I can ask around, but it seems odd that I would not have heard this before given that people in this town are unabashed when it comes to their racism.
It would help me to know exactly where “at the city limits” this sign would be, so that I might ask people if they remember a sign on Warren Ave or wherever. It would give me a eighborhood to start with. I am highly skeptical of this since 1.) in the 1950s, there was no reason for any black person to be in Niles for any reason due to employment discrimination. If you needed a domestic servant, there were plenty of poor hillbilly Irish women with their out of wedlock children. Few people in Niles could afford domestic servants. 2.)By the 1950s there was little employment within the city limits…. The large steel mills in Warren and Youngstown attracted African American workers, as would the auto assembly plants in the 1960s and ’70s, but the plants in Niles were not hiring many workers….
The main thing that was going on here in the 1920’s 1930’s was race violence directed at Catholics. My grandmother expended a lot of energy trying to inculcate me with a fear and hatred of the Klan, who lynched her uncle. My father says that he remembers a photograph that hung in his grandfather’s real estate office of a militia of local men, including my great grandfather, standing in front of a convent with guns, the caption underneath reading, “The Knights of Columbus.” I know that there were armed sentries posted at particularly tense times on a few of the roads that lead into Niles to route any “outsiders” that would try to come into the city…I cannot imagine were I African American in the 1920s that I would choose to move to a town where white people are engaged in armed combat with other white people. You know, you move up from the South to get AWAY from the Klan.
I do not believe that covenants were used in Niles. In Niles, the racial composition of the town was controlled informally by real estate. These real estate developers have to cooperate with the city and organized crime in order to operate. Many of the people in real estate in this city were part of the structure of organized crime, or at least relied on their support to operate their businesses. If you build a house and sell it to a Black family, you will not ever get a building permit again. My mother’s uncle was a local contractor and real estate developer, and according to him, it was well known to local contractors that it was a waste of time trying to build in Niles city because there were only two contractors who were issued permits. I think this practice has loosened within the past ten years due to attention being brought onto the city’s policies through lawsuits against these two contractors for shoddy workmanship…
Informal exclusion of African Americans from real estate seems to be basically, just saying, “No. Sorry.” At some point, this subterfuge developped where if an African American family tried to purchase a property in Niles, the owner would be able to produce a fake deposit check as proof that the property was no longer for sale.
This deposit check business is interesting to me because Fair Housing law was fairly unenforceable until 1988, and so what was the harm in simple stating, “I refuse to sell my property to Negros?” My dad said that in his opinion, there was no real threat of any Black people integrating Niles neighborhoods because, “It would not happen. And they [african americans] knew better. White people would refuse to sell their property to a Black family because they [the white sellers] knew they would be retaliated against.” and so I ask, if Black people knew better than to try to buy properties, then what is the purpose of the fake check? he said, “In case some rich Black from Cleveland tried to come down with a lawyer and buy a house…” Again, this makes no sense to me, because Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act didn’t take effect until 1971…. and even then, no penalties were provided. The NAACP, which is what i believe “rich Black from Cleveland” must be code for, couldn’t do anything….
The Erie Depot is still standing, but passenger service ended there in 1962. My father says that he does not remember there being such a sign posted there in his lifetime, but that his grandfather told him that such a sign had been posted at one time at the Pennsylvania Terminal on the south side of Niles, a location that would be better described as “the outskirts of town” than Erie Street. Passenger service was ended on that line sometime around 1958. No trace of it exists today, but it was located at the intersection of Third and Brown. Perhaps then there were two similar signs, one at each railroad passenger depot.
…I think its purpose (why it wasn’t taken down) was rather than trying to exclude African Americans, who were excluded other ways, it served as a way for “native” Whites to feel like they were in control when they were clearly being overrun by the irish and the italians and the “mill hunkies.” They could say to themselves, as they increasingly were becoming minorities, “Well, at least there are no niggers here.”
Here is another variable that helps to explain the dearth of African Americans in Niles prior to WWI. There was a very large destitute horde of Russians squatting in tents and shanty houses along the Mahoning River south of the railroad tracks between Summit Street and Belmont Avenue. These Russians–and I am not sure if they were all Russian or if they were Slovak or what because there are almost no Russians living in Niles today–took all of the jobs that African Americans could hope to get, unskilled labor and such. Their presence depressed local wages for all unskilled labor.
I imagine that these eastern european immigrants eventually took better jobs in the larger steel mills in Youngstown and Warren, and when African Americans did move into Niles, they moved into this area by the river that the Russians previously had occupied. This area is bound by the city limits, but nobody cares what goes on down there. It stinks and the insects are bad in the summer. I do not think that Klan type Whites would have objected much to African Americans squatting over in Russia Field, but I don’t think the Russians would have tolerated it.
One of the few African Americans to move to Niles was a man named Dixon. (could be spelled Dickson?) at least by 1940. He was a plasterer and concrete finisher. He was well respected as a skilled tradesperson, and his work was prized. I remember that my maternal grandmother told me that my grandfather (who was a bricklayer) built their entire house himself except for the plastering, which Dixon did. According to my father, he lived in a house in the Russia Field area.”

Niles had a battle between the KKK and the Knights of the Flaming Circle, on 11/1/1924; the latter won. %u2014 Jenkins, ch.7.
[William D. Jenkins, Steel Valley Klan (Kent: Kent State UP, 1990)]

Testimony of a local resident:
“I live in NE Ohio, an area that has been and is home to a large number of immigrants of eastern and southern European ancestry. There has been a great deal of racism directed at the Catholic Irish and Italians in this area. In the 1920’s (1924) the Klan marched in Niles. Dr. William Jenkins from Youngstown State Univ. wrote a book bout Klan activities in this area. Niles also attracted the Klan because of the small number of black people who attempted to reside in Niles. Stories from residents (including my now deceased grandmother) remember the signs informing “undesirables” (people of African American ancestry and Catholics) to leave town before the sun went down….I don’t know if any of this is useful information, but your book sounds quite interesting. “