“S-O-U-T-H-E-R-N HISTURHEE”

Sign at a park in Grosse Pointe, Mich. (From "Sundown Towns")

I am struggling with an issue which is personal to me: the complicity of all people in the South for the horrors of Jim Crow and all things racist. I have spent time reviewing and researching information that confirms for me that racism was not peculiar to the south and that the north doesn’t   just get a pass from it.

The Book  Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen got me on the road to feeling better about my checkered past.  In the work James Loewen shares his comprehensive study of thousands of cities across America which may or may not be  “sundown towns.” Loween suggests that   starting with Reconstruction and continuing until the fair-housing legislation of the late 1960s — whites in America created thousands of whites-only towns, commonly known as “sundown towns” owing to the signs often posted at their city limits that warned, as one did in Hawthorne, Calif., in the 1930s: “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne.” [1]

The work is interesting because it documents case after case where there was organized an institutionalized opposition to even allowing African Americans to pass through certain communities.

There is also a fascinating website that accompanies it where you can manipulate a searchable map of sundown communities across America. Notable places of interest for me were Cooperstown and its acknowledged unpleasant past with Minstrel Shows and Levittown, home of America’s first subdivision where Levittown (on LI) contained a clause in the lease for rental properties: “The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” [2]

Each city page includes methods of exclusion, a demographic picture from the census and some contain actual reports from “historians.” I am unsure if the site itself is good history but it makes for interesting reading and points toward evidence of a lingering form of racism that isn’t quite lynching, but perhaps the suggestion of its possibilities.

A site that I would use to explore this  nagging question for both black and white  in my classes when I was teaching middle school is from PBS based on its six hour television series Africans in America. It is full of wonderful interviews, important text and images that allowed me to demonstrate to my students, white and black, the universality of the issues of race in our society.  It also had conclusive evidence that it was not only the south that had and continues to have issues with race.  The children I taught were like me. Their forebears came from the surrounding country. At some point during the six week unit we did on race and ethnicity in the United States a child would ask the question, but what about my family? Were we part of the problem? Did we demonstrate? Did we sit in, burn down or stand by? They struggled with the question of complicity and year after year we never arrived at the answer. This site would help to inform the thinking or the realities of what life was like at the time but it could not answer their questions.

I think it is human to want to find reasons for, perhaps be able to live with the actions taken by people in the past, especially when these people may be your own.  Not the heinous examples of terror played out in the pages of the Wright stories and in towns across the south, but the acceptance of an endemically evil system that pervades every aspect of society and a failure to speak out or act. But in the end you don’t. Your Granny still didn’t do anything. Your Uncle still makes those jokes and your cousins taught you your first racist joke. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know that  anyone gets a pass.

[1] James W. Loewen. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism ( New York: New Press, 2005) 205

[2] Possible Sundown Towns in NY http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?id=272. 03/28/2010

2 thoughts on ““S-O-U-T-H-E-R-N HISTURHEE”

  1. It’s interesting that you brought up Cooperstown because the AMC II class went to the Christ Church graveyard on Monday and came face to face with the areas racist past. The graveyard of Christ Church was once segregated. The grave of Joe Tom Husbands, a black man, and his daughter are clearly and purposefully set apart from the other graves. Those two graves also face the street, while all the other graves face the church. I know that many people get tours of the graveyard and hear the story about how the Cooper family let their former slave be buried in their plot, as if that is supposed to resolve the whole area, but even he is kept apart from the other graves.

    So, there you go. “America’s most perfect village” had a segregated graveyard. It’s like you said, no one gets a pass.

  2. This post reminded me of Gretchen’s doctoral thesis on the Greenbook, an African American travel book. She states that as you moved farther south or west from areas of higher African American concentration the Greenbook was necessary for finding safe places to stay. The map link you provided reinforces this and shows the unpleasant fact that there were more segregated areas in the North than we would like to think.

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