Friday, April 19, 2013

Living in a Sundown State

By Nathan Davis 

Several stereotypes follow Iowans across the United States. Iowans are portrayed as rural farmers, soccer moms, and relatively unpredictable swing voters. Mostly, however, they are known across the country as warm and inviting people. Many travelers feel just as at home in Iowa as they do in their own neighborhood — in fact, it’s a rare to hear about Iowans being unwelcoming to those who join their communities. But it has happened.

Iowans, no different from much of the United States, participated in the expulsion of African Americans from their pristine, bucolic communities. Historian and sociologist James Loewen recently visited Cedar Falls, (a former sundown town itself) to discuss his findings on segregation in the United States.

Loewen said he was not initially expecting sundown towns to be common.

“When I started doing research on sundown towns, I knew that all-white towns came in three types: sundown towns that kept out African Americans (and/or other groups), sundown suburbs, and towns that just happened to be all white,” he said.

“I thought the vast majority of all white communities would be of that third type,” Loewen said on his website. “Then I learned better.”

Loewen is no stranger to controversy. His book Lies My Teacher Told Me criticized teachers, historians and textbook authors for cleaning up America’s history. Loewen stirred the pot again with his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.

Sundown Towns chronicles the little known history of a nationwide expulsion of African Americans, along with other ethnic minorities, from over 3,000 American communities.

This sign sat opposite the Sojourner Truth Homes, a federal
housing project in Detroit. A riot occurred when white locals 
tried to prevent black residents from moving in.

Some may wonder why such a prominent historian is so dedicated to being an iconoclast, but the true question Americans should be asking themselves is whether or not they should be offended or grateful for this startling revelation.

Iowans in particular might be surprised to learn that there at least 40 suspected sundown towns in their home state, including Bondurant, Clear Lake, Manchester, Sioux Center, Pella and many more. The full list can be found on Loewen’s website along with his thoughts on the current state of sundown towns.

Loewen writes, “Many sundown towns — probably more than half — have given up their exclusionary residential policies. Others still make it uncomfortable or imprudent for African Americans to live in them.”

The difficult part about identifying sundown towns is that many of their efforts have been unofficial and that citizens are quick to forget the dark history of their homes. It seems many Americans may have developed a sort of amnesia related to the atrocities committed by their communities.

So how can one identify a sundown town? Loewen listed four steps.

First, scouring a city’s census records can show how the population reflected political and social changes.

“If you find a sharp drop in the black population, that is of course, suspicious. If you only find low numbers of African Americans, decade after decade, that too is suspicious, especially if blacks are hardly absent from nearby towns and counties or if the town's total population is increasing,” says Loewen.

Next, a researcher would examine local histories and newspapers to locate signs of racial segregation.

Regardless of these findings, the third step is to collect local histories — especially due to the insidious nature of sundown policies.

Finally, taking all of the information into account and analyzing the findings is integral to pinning a community for racial segregation. If a town’s residents in fact committed crimes against minorities, Loewen said they now have a moral obligation to correct their wrongs.

“At a minimum, any town that can be shown to have kept out blacks in the past and still ‘boasts’ an overwhelmingly white demography should be asked to make three statements: admit it ... apologize ... [and] proclaim it now welcomes residents of all races,” he said.

With what are supposedly America’s friendliest people, it may be hard to believe that Iowa could have such an intolerant past. The actions of Iowan communities from 1890 through 1970 (possibly even today) has hurt the way that our communities have grown culturally, socially, and ethically. Iowans, along with many other Americans, have a hidden past of racism that historian James Loewen believes must be known and corrected immediately.

It is in the hands of Iowans to research, locate and recognize communities that have imposed racial segregation. With sincerity and grace, Iowa has the chance to correct its dark past and prove that that it truly does have the friendliest residents in the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment