Guest Commentary: Sundown towns remain problem

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.

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townie1 wrote on November 02, 2015 at 8:11 am

I am confused about Rantoul being considered a sundown town. I lived in Rantoul in the early seventies and always saw people of all races out at all times. The town has always been diverse (in the past because of the base) and is even more diverse now. Anyone that can enlighten me on this?

Sid Saltfork wrote on November 02, 2015 at 4:11 pm

The author's premise is a village of predominately white residetns is racist.  He demands that the residents admit that they are racists, and apologize.  He is a "visiting professor" from Vermont, now living in Decatur.  He must be qualified to lecture rural residents on racism?

If he wants to write about Homer, why doesn't he visit Homer?  He only needs to sit in Charlie's Grub and Suds and interview locals, or attend the Homer Soda Festival.  He depends on "research" that others have "stated".

He did visit Tolono though.  He interviewed a couple of 80 year old women, a bar tender, two female workers, and a tavern owner.  Six people unless the bar owner, and the bar tender are the same person.  No questionaires to the community.  No interviews of young adults.  Nope, only verbal interviews.  Definately, not Ph.D. work.  Although, I am sure that he has a diploma from somewhere stating that he posseses a Ph.D. 

Sorry, but the county is not the city.  The author should not hold his breath while waiting for his demanded apology.

Don Gwinn wrote on June 20, 2017 at 3:06 pm

(18 months later)
In case anyone stumbles across this comment, you should know that this characterization of the "premise" of Loewen's work is inaccurate. Loewen's study of sundown towns focused on census data from towns of at least 1000 people. Loewen does screen towns initially by ruling out negative results--if a town has a sizeable, steady black population over the decades of the census, it's obviously not a sundown town.
If a town has a steady black population for a number of years and then a sudden sharp decline in black population, like what Loewen found in Anna, Illinois, that's a strong indicator that black residents were driven out by violence or threats, as was all too common between 1890 and 1970. If the town continued to be all-white or very nearly so, that's a good indication that black residents, if not visitors, were being kept out by violent action or threats. Nowhere in Loewen's work is it implied that if a town is mostly white, then it's probably a sundown town. There are, however, a LOT of sundown towns. Many have made a transition to less overt threats but remain all-white or close to it. 

My hometown of Virden, IL, where I still live, was a sundown town as late as the mid-1990s; I know that not because it's almost all-white (though it still is that) but because black residents were driven out of town in 1898-99, and black refugees from the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 were warned to keep moving and not expect any help in Virden. I know it because when the town's token black resident, Sarah "Nubia" Hall, died in 1941, her obituary called her the "last colored resident of Virden." I know it because resdents tell stories of the time in the 1960s when a black man was spotted downtown on the square and all the shops were locked and shades drawn until the police could find him and escort him to the edge of town. I know it because other residents tell about black people trying to move into Virden in the 1970s and 1980s, only to have their windows broken, property stolen and defaced, and threats left. I know it because the KKK was confident enough in Virden in the 1920s and 1930s to march into local churches and present donations to the pastors during Sunday services in full Klan hoods and robes (which I know about because the local newspaper carried pictures of the event.)

Is all that true of Tolono? Probably not exactly the same. But if the residents say it was a sundown town, I have to ask myself what reason they have to lie about that. Growing up in Virden, it was an article of faith among kids in the 1980s that there was still technically an ordinance on the books that barred black people from the alleys--they were required to stick to the main streets--and from the town after dark.  I have no idea whether that was ever actually enacted into law, but the fact that I never met someone who thought it was implausible tells me that the town's attitude was being communicated clearly.

On a much less relevant issue, Dr. Loewen is a native of Decatur. He grew up there before moving out to places like Vermont. Again, this is discussed in his book. It's worth at least checking it out from your local library. The audio book is an easy way to digest it in your spare time when you don't have time to read a book, but I wound up buying the paper version after hearing the audiobook.