James Loewen: How sundown rules created white-only towns

Historians in the News

The biggest defeat of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was when he tried to speak in the Chicago suburbs of Kenilworth and Cicero in 1966 and '67, said author James Loewen. King was never allowed to speak in Kenilworth, and he and his marchers were met by such violent animosity at the border of Cicero that they never made it into town, in spite of the 2,000 police escorting them.

What these two towns had in common, said Loewen, was that they were "sundown towns."

Loewen, the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "Lies Across America," was speaking at the Green Hedges School for Sunday's service of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society, the local branch of a humanistic religious and educational organization called the American Ethical Union. He had come to Vienna to speak about his latest book, "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Racism in America."

A sundown town, he explained, was a town where blacks — and often Jews, Asians and other minorities — were not allowed in town after sunset. Most, he said, were bordered by signs reading, "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you in [name of town]."

Loewen said that as he researched towns with such histories, "to my astonishment, I found 472 sundown towns in Illinois alone," and he asserted that there were about 10,000 such towns across the country, "which makes it actually a majority of all towns in the United States outside the South."

Southerners generally did not understand the concept, he said. "In fact, they thought it was crazy: 'Why would you make the maid leave? Why would you make your agricultural labor force leave?' It made no sense to them."
Hence, there have been few sundown towns in Virginia, and most of those were in Appalachia, said Loewen. However, there have been several such towns in Maryland.

He pointed out that the Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, Md., is surrounded on three sides by houses. This, he said, is because the area in which it stands was originally intended as a working-class district. But when public transportation improved, Chevy Chase decided to become a sundown town and let the black labor force come into town by trolley. Working-class housing development was suddenly stopped in town.

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