Guest Commentary: Sundown towns remain problem
By James W. Loewen
Recently, Tom Kacich wrote a column in The News-Gazette, "Racism accusations need better proof," referencing my website on "sundown towns," sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntowns.php, and particularly my list, "Possible Sundown Towns in IL." Sundown towns are communities that for decades were "all white" on purpose.
His headline is right. More research is needed. That's why the list is headed "Possible Sundown Towns in IL" (my italics).
However, Fisher, Mahomet, Tolono, Rantoul and Homer — mentioned in the article and by Rohn Koester, who appeared before the Champaign County Board — almost surely were sundown towns.
(About one other town, Sadorus, mentioned in the article, I have no information other than the 1990 census, which shows a population of 469, all white. I have not studied Sadorus, since I rarely focus on towns smaller than 1,000.)
Kacich wrote that the Champaign County Board was "even told to acknowledge that a number of communities in Champaign County had been so-called 'sundown towns.'"
His use of "even" implies that such an acknowledgement might be outlandish. In fact, it is nothing of the sort.
Sundown towns occur throughout central Illinois. Confirmed examples near Champaign County include Arcola, DeLand, Monticello and Paxton.
What about within the county? Let's just focus on one town that Kacich listed, Tolono.
Here are snippets of actual interviews done in Tolono in 2010:
— Two female residents, interviewed together at their workplace: "It is a known fact that black people weren't welcome in Tolono," said one. When (the older woman) went to high school, "there were no black people." When (the younger one) attended, some time after the mid-1990s, "there were two African-Americans and three mixed." The two African-Americans were continually harassed. The female African-American had to drop out, while the male graduated. The older woman added, "Some people come to the Tolono schools because they are all Caucasian."
— A service worker in a Tolono establishment, possibly referring to the same family, said a black family moved in 10 years ago and was harassed but after living there for some time was accepted.
— Two women, both more than 80 years old, were interviewed together. One had lived in Tolono her whole life; the other moved to Tolono before 1960. Both confirmed that in the '60s, "black people could work in Tolono but had to be out by dark." They said it used to be in the bylaws that blacks could not live there.
— A tavern owner referred to Tolono's reputation as a sundown town, which made black musicians afraid to come play at his tavern "because it is in Tolono." He also said that the community does not support his bar "because it brings in all sorts of people," including black people.
I should add that almost every interviewee said that Tolono was much more accepting of blacks now than it had been. That's why I list Tolono's current sundown status as "Still sundown? Probably not, although still very few blacks."
Even if now open to all without regard to race, "recovering" sundown towns like Tolono still face challenges. Their police forces, teaching staff and even maintenance crews are likely to be all white. "Especially older people," as another barkeep put it, still do not accept black residents. The town's reputation lives on, not only deterring black musicians but also black would-be residents, while attracting those whites who want an overwhelmingly white town.
Rather than professing outrage that I might have called these towns sundown without adequate proof, Tom Kacich might better write to urge them to take three steps to move decisively past their white supremacist pasts:
1. Admit it. "We did this."
2. Apologize. "We did this, and it was wrong, and we're sorry."
3. And state, "We don't do it any more."
Then neither my website nor residents of Champaign-Urbana will have any problem in announcing that these communities are no longer sundown towns.
James W. Loewen is emeritus professor of sociology from the University of Vermont and visiting professor in African American Studies at the University of Illinois. His books include "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "Sundown Towns." He is a native of Decatur.