James Loewen: In 'Sundown Towns,' Racism in the Rearview Mirror

Historians in the News

Anthony Griffin remembers the signs. How could he forget them?

A black lawyer, he grew up in Baytown, Tex. Back in high school in the late '60s and early '70s, he would borrow his mom's car and drive around East Texas, exploring. He saw the signs in a couple of towns.

"I was terrified," he says. "You're driving with your buddies and you say, 'Thank God, it's not dark. Let's get the hell out.' "

George Brosi remembers the signs, too. Editor of Appalachian Heritage magazine, he recalls seeing one sign in southern Kentucky back in the 1990s when he was a college English teacher.

"It was on Highway 461," he says. "It stayed up for about a year and then it mysteriously disappeared. It was probably five feet across and three feet tall. It was off the right-of-way, up on a hillside in an overgrown pasture."

The signs are gone now but once they were a part of America's roadside culture, posted along the highway at the town or county line, a blunt reminder of brutal racism.

"Most read 'Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Set on You in -- ,' " says James Loewen, the Washington-based author of a controversial new book called "Sundown Towns." But sometimes, he adds, the sign makers tried to get clever. "Some came in a series, like the old Burma Shave signs, saying, ' . . . If You Can Read . . . You'd Better Run . . . If You Can't Read . . . You'd Better Run Anyway.' "

Most of the signs were posted in the first half of the 20th century, Loewen says, but some lingered on long afterward. They were not a Southern phenomenon, he stresses. They were found all over the United States with local variations:

In Colorado: "No Mexicans After Night."

In Connecticut: "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark."

In Nevada, the ban was expanded to include those the sign-writers term "Japs."

All told, Loewen says, he found evidence of more than 150 sundown signs in 31 states. But he wasn't researching the sundown signs . They were just symbols. He was researching sundown towns , which he defines as "towns that were all white on purpose." He found lots of them -- far more than he expected when he began his research in his home state of Illinois about five years ago....

Loewen's book has been favorably reviewed in several newspapers, including this one, but some historians say that he has taken his argument beyond the scope of his evidence."Those who are skeptical of Loewen's argument will find plenty of gaps in his research," Thomas J. Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania professor of history and sociology, writes in the liberal magazine the Nation."Some of his most provocative assertions rest on tiny shards of evidence; in particular, he relies on oral histories and e-mails from residents of sundown towns, making it difficult to differentiate rumor from fact." Another skeptic is Andrew Wiese, a history professor at San Diego State University whose book on blacks in suburbia,"Places of Their Own," was cited in"Sundown Towns.""One thing that concerns me is the definition of sundown town, which is a little slippery and shifty," says Wiese."It conflates places that practiced housing discrimination with places that forcibly kept blacks out after dark."What is a sundown town? It's a place that forcibly kept blacks out after dark. But that's different than a place like Scarsdale, New York, where black people could not buy a house but where many lived as gardeners and domestics and were not forced out after dark." Loewen responds:"I don't think there's a big difference. I think many places where blacks could not buy a house were also places where blacks wouldn't be safe after dark. . . . I think suburbs tended to have a little more finesse [in their racism] but I'm not going to back off."...

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