Forgotten story of America’s whites-only towns – James Loewen’s new book documents the rise of ‘sundown towns’ and their enduring legacy. By Dan Carter Winter 2007 11.1.07
In the 1980s my wife, a social worker, visited a nursing home on Sand Mountain, a large mountainous plateau in north Georgia that stretches westward into northeastern Alabama. When she mentioned that she noticed there were no black people in the facility or the nearby communities, one of the older residents told her of a sign that had been posted for years on the main highway at the foot of the mountain: “Nigger don’t let the sun set on you on Sand Mountain.” Although the sign had been removed, she acknowledged, Sand Mountain remained a place where no black people were allowed after dark: a “sundown town.”
I wasn’t surprised when my wife recounted the conversation. Living in downtown Atlanta, I considered the isolated communities on Sand Mountain a world apart: Deliverance country, the land of hillbillies, snake-handlers, and inbred family trees. But in his richly documented account of the hidden history of America’s sundown towns, James Loewen shows that Sand Mountain was one of as many as 3,000 communities where whites expelled African Americans between 1890 and 1930. The only thing unusual about the history of Sand Mountain is its location: The overwhelming majority of sundown towns were in the North.
Although census numbers document the dispersion of black Americans into the North through the 1880s and their subsequent disappearance from hundreds of small communities over the next half-century, I reacted skeptically as I began reading Sundown Towns. It’s not that I was surprised by his account of widespread racism in the North. Leon Litwack’s 1961 book, North of Slavery, punctured the myth that most antebellum white Northerners were either abolitionists or open to the possibility of full civil rights for African Americans. My own research and writing has focused upon critical episodes of white-on-black oppression in the era of reconstruction and the age of segregation. But like most historians, I had always attributed black migration patterns to economic forces that drew black Americans first north and then to urban areas that offered jobs in America’s expanding industrial economy. I recalled encountering scattered references to “sundown towns” in state and regional histories and in reminiscences and oral histories, but their existence seemed an aberration. Could racial cleansing on such a scale have taken place and then been forgotten?
James Loewen certainly makes that case with remarkable tenacity and a mountain of statistical and documentary evidence. By training Loewen is a sociologist (he is also a Unitarian Universalist), but he deftly addresses racial tensions in the changing historical context of the Civil War and post–Civil War years. Initially, and with great hesitancy, northern whites supported political rights for the emancipated slaves. But the majority of white Southerners never accepted the new order. Combining violence and economic coercion, these self-styled “redeemers” overthrew the biracial Reconstruction governments and went on to create a new post-slavery racial hierarchy founded upon the disenfranchisement of black men, legal segregation in all aspects of public and civic life, and a fierce insistence upon white supremacy in every private interaction between black and white.