Does My Town Have a Racist Past?

How students can convert the shameful history of sundown towns in America into a rich opportunity for setting the record straight
Illustration by Tonya Engel

In 1999, I started researching sundown towns. These are overwhelmingly white communities that for decades stayed that way on purpose. The term derives from the signs that some towns posted at their corporate limits with warnings such as, "Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Go Down On You in Hawthorne," to quote the anti-greeting at the edge of Hawthorne, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. Although the term is not widely known east of Ohio, municipalities that were white on purpose are found, in abundance, from Maine to Florida.

Invitation flyer "Only Member of the Caucasian Race"

I first learned of such towns as a college student in Minnesota in the 1960s. Classmates from the Twin Cities told me that Edina, the wealthiest suburb of Minneapolis, had an informal saying, "Not one Negro and not one Jew." Then I learned of Darien, Conn., one of the richest suburbs of New York City. Darien was made famous briefly for the practice by the Academy Award-winning movie of 1947, Gentleman's Agreement, about the method by which it kept out Jews. Later I learned of the motto that residents of Anna, Ill., applied to their town: "Ain't No Niggers Allowed."


Not By Accident

The notion that entire communities had abrogated unto themselves the right to keep out a racial or religious group seemed outrageous to me, so in 1999 I resolved to write a book about it. I imagined I would find maybe 10 of these communities in Illinois (my home state, where I planned more research than in any other single state) and 50 across the country. To my astonishment, I found probably 500 in Illinois alone, or 70 percent of all incorporated places in that state. I found hundreds more across the United States and now estimate that as many as 10,000 such towns existed at their peak, in about 1970. They ranged from hamlets such as Mize, Miss., population 300, to cities like Appleton, Wis., with 57,000 residents in 1970. "Sundown suburbs" often were even larger: Levittown on Long Island, population more than 80,000, and Warren, a Detroit suburb of 80,000.

African Americans and Jews were not the only targets of exclusion. Scores of communities in the West — from rural counties in Wyoming to cities as large as Tacoma, Wash. — drove out their Chinese Americans in the 1880s and 1890s. Some locales maintained anti-Chinese policies at least until the 1960s. Two towns in Nevada sounded a whistle at 6 p.m. to tell Native Americans to be gone. Like Darien, many suburbs across the U.S., as well as beach communities and resort towns, banned Jews. A handful of towns kept out Mexican Americans, Catholics, Greek Americans, or other groups. The main targets, were, and remain, African Americans.

These days, many former sundown towns have moved beyond outright prohibition. Unfortunately, they rarely have taken any formal action to rectify, undo, come to terms with, or at least admit their past policies, even when these were formal. A few black families moved in, despite the town's reputation, or white residents at least claim they could do so if they wanted. But that neither addresses nor remedies the historical record.


Counteracting Misleading Information

For teachers, the emergence of "recovering" sundown towns poses the possibility of distorted understanding of racial demographics among students. In the old days, when a town or school explicitly excluded, it was easy to pinpoint the excluded group – often enough by reading the sign at the city limits. Today, complicity is more subtle. Teachers and students in overwhelmingly white towns like Ironwood, Mich., say, or Kenilworth, Ill., may imagine that they have no issues of exclusionary race relations, at least locally. After all, Ironwood had just one black household in the 2000 census, and Kenilworth none at all. "Logical" explanations rush in to fill the vacuum created by not talking or thinking about race. The absence of statistically proportional minority populations is explained as voluntary, accidental, or "natural." Ironwood, for example, is just too cold for African Americans. Or too far from the South. Kenilworth, one of the wealthiest towns in the U.S., is doubtless too expensive for black folks. "I couldn't live in Grosse Pointe either," a white professor told me, referring to a similarly elite sundown suburb of Detroit. More generally, whites often rationalize that blacks don't want to live in white neighborhoods.

To be sure, it is possible that no black family ever chanced to move into a given white community or neighborhood with a sundown past. Originally, I thought that most white communities were places no African Americans had happened to settle. Seven years of research taught me otherwise. It turns out that very few overwhelmingly white towns or suburbs are that way by accident.

Of the 502 overwhelmingly white communities in Illinois, for instance, I confirmed the racial policies, formal or informal, for 219. Of that number, only one had no history of keeping out blacks. Since 218 of the 219 suspected Illinois sundown towns on which we have information have been confirmed, what can we predict about the remaining 283, on which we have no historical information beyond census data? Our best estimate would be that 99.5% — the same proportion as among the towns we have checked out, or 500 of 502 suspected towns, kept out African Americans. Several sundown suburbs of Chicago also barred Jews. In Indiana, of 231 suspected towns, I have identified the racial policies of 95; all 95 barred African-American residents.

White mobs dropped dynamite bombs on the black community from five airplanes on Tulsa, Okla., June 1921

It turns out that Ironwood is hardly "too cold." Other factors better account for its whiteness. According to the daughter of a track inspector for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad (C&NW), "as recently as the early 1960s anyone black on train crews would be told they couldn't stay overnight." Porters on C&NW passenger trains "experienced enough harassment from local law enforcement that they wouldn't step onto the depot platform while the train was in the station." Similarly, Kenilworth is hardly "too rich." Rather, its founder, Joseph Sears, built into its founding ordinances "sales to Caucasians only," initially interpreted to bar Jews as well as African Americans. One black family lived in the town from 1964 to the mid-1970s. A cross was burned on their lawn after they moved in, and Kenilworth never got past its anti-black and anti-Jewish reputation.

Not only towns but also many schools kept out African Americans, formally or informally. As with communities, some still do. Before Brown v. Board of Education, this was true across the South, of course. De jure school segregation also held in Maryland, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, most of Kansas, New Mexico, most of Arizona, and some other parts of the United States. But even in those places where schools served neighborhoods rather than racial groups, overwhelmingly white schools were usually that way on purpose. Builders in Lathrup Township, for instance, a suburb of Detroit, openly advertised, "as to a school for your child consider this: ... the entire school district is reserved exclusively for Caucasians." Private schools from Jackson Preparatory Academy in Mississippi to Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wis., flatly excluded blacks. Most now admit a handful of African Americans, but their past lingers as a self-fulfilling prophecy, keeping their student bodies and their applicant pools overwhelmingly white. Continuing problems — ranging from a white curriculum to outright harassment — can make their few black students feel alienated and uncomfortable.

Within this web of disinformation lies a rich opportunity for teachers. The study of sundown towns across the nation can lead classes into exploration of the often unexamined role of race in their daily lives. It likewise opens the door to more general discussions of questions of racism in society. Using the examples of racial exclusion and denial in sundown towns, teachers can challenge students to do history — to investigate the racial past of their own communities, neighborhoods, or schools. Towns didn't stay white by accident. They left paper trails of discrimination by which students can ferret out information. Likely sources include restrictive covenants, city ordinances, realtor steering and incidents of police harassment. If a locale or institution did keep out African Americans — documents will confirm it. In the process, students will find themselves doing research – checking census tables, reading local histories, skimming old newspapers, interviewing senior citizens, and using land records and city council minutes. 


Census Research

The first step is to help students locate population numbers by race and decade. The Web site readily provides these data for 1990 and 2000 for every town with more than a few hundred inhabitants. Included is information as to age and sex in the black population and number of households with black adult householders. These numbers help students avoid misattributing residential status to African Americans in institutions such as colleges or prisons or within white households as employees. Any sharp drop in the black population is, of course, suspicious. So are low numbers of African Americans for decade after decade, especially if blacks are hardly absent from nearby towns or if the town's total population is increasing.

For most earlier decades the racial composition of towns is also available online from the Census Bureau, but it takes some poking around to find it. These data can also be found in the bound volumes of the census at the local library or nearest university library. For towns smaller than 2,500, the census often does not give population by race, but students can amass it from the "manuscript census," the raw data of the census. It is on the web at various sites, usually by state. Large libraries and genealogical collections also have it on microfilm.

Bear in mind that the exclusion need not have been total. Some towns drove out their African Americans, even posted the traditional sundown town signs, yet allowed one family to remain. In 1899 when residents of Pana, in central Illinois, expelled their black community, killing five in the process, they didn't throw out the barber. No one had anything against the barber, who served only white customers. Pana went on to put up the traditional sundown town signs at each highway entrance to town, but the 1900 and 1910 censuses show a handful of African Americans – the barber and his family. In 1986, when residents of Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, burned out a black would-be resident, Cicero had more than 90 African Americans. They served in white households, lived in such institutions as jails, hospitals, and colleges, or rented in large apartment houses not in residential neighborhoods.

A 1940 newspaper in South Carolina only express racist exclusion.


Local Histories, Newspapers

Students can then go to their local libraries and divide up various tasks. Some can skim local history books, such as centennial histories and county histories. Probably they will find nothing about race, but these can surprise. Others can learn where notes are on file from the WPA Federal Writers Project — maybe in the county seat or the state historical library — and skim those. Another can check the vertical files (newspaper clippings) for "blacks," "Negroes," "segregation," "Ku Klux Klan," etc. A team can scan the local newspaper for the decade between two censuses that showed a sharp decline in black population, looking for stories that might explain the decline. Sometimes the nearest newspaper outside the town in question will be more forthcoming, since the local paper may not want to publish anything that might reflect badly on its community.


Oral Histories

At the same time, students can begin learning how to interview, take notes, and write them up. They can start by interviewing their teacher, seeking what he or she knows while honing their questioning, note-taking, and interactive skills. Then they should interview the oldest members of their own families, or elders in the communities. Teach students to begin gently, maybe by asking what the town's major employers used to be. After the respondent has begun to open up, the student can ask, "Have you ever heard that [name of town] used to keep out blacks?" They might mention that some nearby town once kept out African Americans; did this community have the same policy? What about other targets of bias, such as Jews, Latinos, Asians? If interviewees say yes, then ask how they heard it, from whom, when, etc. Students should ask the librarian in charge of the local history collection if he or she knows anything about the absence of blacks. Might it have been on purpose? Was there any intimidation of black families that tried to move into the town?

Students (working in pairs to enhance accuracy) should also ask the librarian, "Who knows the most about the history of the town?" Every town has its expert. They always should end by asking, "Who else should I talk with?" Other students can interview the city clerk, long-time realtors, and retired city officials. Still others can go to the local nursing home or senior center. If there is a genealogical society, two students should attend its next meeting after talking with its leader.

A 1920s promotional brochure for Mena, Ark.

Oral history sometimes requires extra digging to ensure validity. Persons who respond, "Blacks were not allowed..." should be asked, "How do you know that?" Students can press for added details: "Did your friends ever talk about it?" "Did you ever hear of a black family that moved in, then left?"



After students have some information, they may be able to triangulate with confirmation from different sets of data. For example, the manuscript census or written or oral sources may show that the town once had a black or interracial neighborhood. Students can then learn from a lawyer, real estate agent, or city official where land records and deeds of sale are kept. These can be with the town clerk, at the nearest county courthouse, or perhaps in the tax assessor's office. Tracing backward from the present reveals when a property changed hands and sometimes its selling price. If several properties changed hands at about the same time, that may be when the black community was ousted. If this happened before 1930, the 1930 manuscript census for nearby interracial towns may contain some of the names of people who were expelled. Their children may still be alive to share family lore of the expulsion, if that is what it was.

Another way to triangulate involves sources from a different population. For example, African-American senior citizens in the nearest biracial town may know something about your students' town, at least by reputation.



Challenge students to do excellent work, because they are actually doing important history that has not been written before. It makes for wonderful entries in the "exhibit" contest of National History Day. Teachers should also photocopy and bind the class results as a book, with interview transcripts (names removed) and other notes as appendices. Deposit a copy — with appropriate fanfare — in the community library. Ages hence, it will become a valuable resource for other researchers. Its existence also confirms to your students that they have accomplished something — "I helped write a book."

Teachers have found that the process of discussing their community's or school's racial past can itself markedly lessen racial prejudice. As students share what adults have told them, stories of racist actions emerge freely because they are not about or by the speaker. Hearing these accounts, other students are likely to respond by making use of the material to reveal a more complete history of the town. In this classroom at least, the town's past exclusivity has become a force for liberation.

Opening up the topic can also become a force for change. If the town or school is still overwhelmingly white, knowledge of its past can help undermine the conflation of whiteness and prestige that still haunts most metropolitan areas. If the town is indeed "recovering," then knowledge of its past can help other teachers and students understand the background of the racial tensions that remain. Not least, if you confirm a town that has not previously been confirmed as a sundown town, please send that information to me for my sundown towns website, so everyone can learn from it.