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James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

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


New York

Basic Information

Type of Place
Independent City or Town
Metro Area
Politics c. 1860?
Strongly Republican
Unions, Organized Labor?

Sundown Town Status

Sundown Town in the Past?
Was there an ordinance?
Don't Know
Don’t Know
Year of Greatest Interest
Still Sundown?
Surely Not

Census Information

The available census data from 1860 to the present
Total White Black Asian Native Hispanic Other BHshld
1900 7,121 0
1960 21,561 11
2000 78,155 1,314

Method of Exclusion

  • Unknown

Main Ethnic Group(s)

  • Unknown

Group(s) Excluded

  • Black
  • Unknown


Tonawanda was founded 1836. It was on both sides of Tonawanda Creek, therefore in two counties, Erie to the S and Niagara to the N.

Email from Former Tonawanda Resident:

“I set off to the public library and talked to old people. Some didn’t want to talk about it. Some hadn’t lived in the city very long so had no idea what I was talking about. But those who did know and recalled events said that in the city’s recent history, perhaps up to the late 50’s or early 60’s that they had seen signs on the edge of town that said something like “Any niggers caught in town after sundown will be lynched!” Memories varied from person to person. Some disputed whether there were actually signs or whether it was like many towns in that it was an unwritten, but understood law. One even recalled that the root cause was the reaction to the rape of a white woman by a black man.”

Former Tonawanda Resident:

“Lots of blacks in the area, such as Buffalo to the South and Niagara Falls to the north but not in Tonawanda or North Tonawanda. Erie Canal, renamed NY State Barge Canal, passes through Tonawanda, and blacks worked on boats going along it, so it was a major route. Some black man allegedly did something bad; whites drove out all blacks or forbade them to live there after that.”

Email from Former Tonawanda Resident:

In 1978, a police officer enrolled at SUNY Buffalo with me told me there had been a sign at City Hall, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In Tonawanda.” I didn’t learn that Tonawanda had such an ordinance until 1976, even though I moved there in 1965, age 7.
“It was tough.” My parents called Mr. Glass, realtor, said they wanted to buy a new house in Tonawanda. He said fine; my mother said she was “colored.” “Click.” [phone hanging up] So they called Mr. Cypriano, Italian. He had no problem with it.
When the first black couple moved in, 1964: the neighbors told them to move. They said they didn’t buy just to sell, but rocks broke their windows, and they left. Then an older black couple moved in, but they had no children and no one bothered them. Then we moved in. Mr. Cypriano went around to the white neighbors, said “I don’t want to hear of any problems like happened with that other colored family,” and “we got no threats. Because of his name, everyone thought he was connected with the Mafia!”
He went to Fletcher Elementary School, attended about a month, was walking home, and two classmates stopped me. “”You’re nothin’ but a nigger!” and they followed me home.” Their father called me that too.
Former Tonawanda Resident:

“I was wonderng if you looked at the town I grew up in. Tonawanda, NY. It is located along the Niagara River about half way between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. There are three Tonawandas. One is the Town of Tonawanda in Erie County which has a population of 60K , the next is the City of Tonawanda in Erie County with a population of about 20K, and the city of North Tonawanda in Niagara County.
The two cities are the focus. They are split by the mouth of the Erie Canal into the Niagara River. The cities have a much older waterfront/downtown areas which have homes from early 1900s or earlier. The rest of the towns built up during the late 50s and early 60s. Tonawanda is fully developed (since the late 60s) and North Tonawanda still has land for new home exurb development.
The homes within about 5 blocks of the water are over 100 years old. The others were built in the 1950s and 1960s. In North Tonawanda there are some new development sections. The cities have had a football rivalry in high school that has gone on for over 100 yrs.
The older sections of the towns have a small town mentality even though it is in the heart of suburbia. The older sections of the cities generally are made up of multiple generations where people stay close to parents and everyone knows gossip about everyone else.
During the early 60s the city of Tonawanda was known for the racism with cross burnings. When I went through school in the mid 70s and 80s there were probably a handful of minority families. The high school had about 2 4 minorities (from 2 families, one black an one Laosian).
The one thing the city did out of tradition was the ringing of the the 9pm horn that would be heard throughout the old section of the city. Its purpose was to vacate the town of backs after dark.
In the city the racism has changed. Instead of being overt, like you could find in the rural south, it has become more subtle. It is more based on stereotypes and the idea that one could work with, or talk to blacks but they wouldn’t see themselves being close friends with them. They would also say stuff when in private that were more stereotypical than blatant racist.
I grew up in the outer, relatively newer areas of the city of Tonawanda. My parents following many who moved to the suburbs from the city. My father spent his career as an inner city Buffalo high school which was mostly minority or immigrants and English was a second language.
When I was a kid and you would hear that horn, you started realizing a pattern of it going off at the same time. Initially it may sound like an emergency siren. I don’t even recall when I learned, but I learned about it from friends or their parents that the horns original purpose was for the town exit. I may have learned about it roughly when I was when I was around 12, early 1980s.
As I said before, people would talk in private some things that they would never say in public.”