Monday, November 28, 2016

Sundown Towns in brief.

Sundown Towns

Today in Illinois, there is estimated to be at least 500 sundown towns.  I have always heard that my home town of Pekin was one, but really never knew the history, until now. I mean, we did have the Pekin Chinks [the name of the school team was “chinks” rather than “railsplitters” or “trojans” or “tornadoes” or something like that]; nothing weird about that.  I did have one black girl in my graduating class; that’s about right; isn't it?  Even today, our football team does not play Peoria teams because of the racism involved; only white teams for us!
A sundown town is any organized town or jurisdiction that keeps African Americans or other minorities out;  or keeps towns all white, on purpose.   Many times it was done by force, such as chasing or harassing minorities out of town, and sometimes it would be done informally.  African Americans just knew not to come to Pekin.  Before 1968, my town would have signs at the entrance that stated:  N* Don't Let the Sun Go down on you in Pekin.  I have always heard the police would run blacks out of town if they were found; but, I have never seen this happen, this was just common knowledge.   As of 1968, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act; commonly referred to as the “Fair Housing Act”. The action of keeping blacks out of communities went underground after that.  Sundown Towns had to take their signs down, and harass minorities informally.  
I thought this was interesting; in 1940, Victor Green wrote the “Negro Motorist Green Book.”  Victor Green was a travel agent in 1940.  He wrote a guide book that gave Blacks a way to avoid Sundown Towns when they traveled; which included hotels, taverns, garages, night-clubs, restaurants, and service-stations where Black readers of the guide would be warned of hostility and danger or assured a welcome in safety.
Sundown Towns varied in size, from very tiny Ava, IL which has 662 people to Arlington Heights, IL with has 76,000 people.    

Many communities remain all white today; whether blacks can live at ease and comfortable within them, I feel, that I remain doubtful.    

I am glad you have addressed this topic, and being from Pekin, a notorious sundown town, it is especially gratifying to know that you investigated James Loewen's website and/or book on the topic.  My own experience with this was one that involved my exposure to racism in housing and culture in stages.  As a young child growing up in a very progressive family in southern California, I did not notice racism, and had very little understanding of it.  As a child growing up in Indianapolis, I was not yet in a place that had quite the history of racial discrimination, although I remember my parents marking with scorn that the Elks Club near our neighborhood was a prejudiced place that would not allow African-Americans to join (this was in the 1970s).  By the time I was in middle school, I was exposed to several some very progressive teachers (Jack Monninger and Fred Farrell stand out in my memory) who taught things that were not in textbooks (about a Ku Klux Klan governor in Indiana, or the discrimination against veterans who were African-American or Hispanic).  Then, when I moved to Saint Louis in 1982 as a 14-year-old, I encountered the strange southern legacy... Missouri had been a slave state, and it seemed very different from Indiana.  I remember once riding on a greyhound bus from Indianapolis to Saint Louis, how the (African-American) woman next to me explained to me that when she had been a girl and her family rode the bus to Saint Louis, the rule had been that all the African-American passengers had to move to the back of the bus when they crossed the Mississippi and entered Missouri.  In Saint Louis I met classmates and adults who possessed quaint notions of virulent race hatred and base racism of the worst kind.  African-American friends and a Native American friend told me about towns in Missouri that were "no go" places for them.  A Jewish friend mentioned how her family had been essentially chased out of Sullivan, Missouri.  I remember getting physically ill when exposed to some of these overtly racist persons who seemed obsessed with their prejudices against a whole class of people.  But this was all over 30 years ago.  I really do wonder what has changed in the attitudes of some of these people, if anything.  

Of course, now as an adult I know more about how to address prejudice and racism when it is exhibited around me.  And, having lived as a racial minority (among Africans in Kenya; among East Asians in Taiwan and China), I have a better sense of what it is like to be a minority, although I can't experience being a member of an historically oppressed minority unless I try to go live in Iran and flaunt my religious identity there. Still, I must admit, the struggle to end racism and deconstruct prejudices has not been the main cause in my life.  I care about it, and have been involved to some degree, but it is a more difficult challenge than, for example, trying to end the deprivation of poverty.  I continue to believe that the main way to reduce prejudices is to increase cooperative contact across races, getting people with different backgrounds to work together for common goals, so that natural friendships and alliances build from that.  Then, I expect natural friendships to develop, and from that, prejudice to be reduced.  I've had some interest in the intellectual movements against prejudices, including the post-modernists, the feminists, the LGBTQ social critics, the political radicals, the leftist or anarchist counter-cultures, and some of the more progressive religious movements (I would count mainstream Western Islam here as one of those). The recent rhetoric after the election of Trump has not surprised me, and I'm sort of glad to see more of the hidden things come out into the light of day where we can see how people really feel.  There have been some problems in the grand strategies and rhetoric and thought processes used by intellectuals in the struggle against prejudices, and I hope that the era we now enter will see more of the anti-racist work take a more practical and applied direction.  We shall see.

No comments: