Correction to This Article
The photo of a "Whites Only" sign on Page One on Feb. 21 should have been credited to the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Ga.
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When Signs Said 'Get Out'

loewen
James W. Loewen, author of "Sundown Towns," says he found reports of thousands of such places. (Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

Sometimes, Loewen says, there was no specific trigger. Whites simply passed ordinances forbidding black people from buying or renting homes and, in some cases, even appearing on the street after sundown. To advertise their actions, the towns sometimes posted sundown signs on the highway or in the railroad station.

"There was a contagion of ordinances," says Loewen. "Many small towns expelled the black population or decreed a policy of not allowing any blacks."

Loewen dug up many examples of towns touting their whiteness. In 1907, Rogers, Ark., published a guide that announced: "Rogers has no Negroes or saloons." In 1936, Owosso, Mich., proudly declared: "There is not a Negro living in the limits of Owosso's incorporated territory." In 1958, the chairman of Maryville, Mo.'s Industrial Development Corp. touted his town to businessmen with this pitch:

"We don't have any niggers here in Maryville. . . . We had to lynch one back in 1931 . . . and the rest of them just up and left."

Driven out of rural towns, many Northern blacks moved to urban ghettos, where they joined Southern blacks who had fled Jim Crow segregation. Meanwhile, the rise of the automobile permitted whites to move to newly created suburbs, most of which, Loewen says, were designed to be all white.

"Almost all suburbs were sundown towns," he says.

He rattles off the names of celebrated American suburbs that once barred black people, and in some cases Jews -- Levittown, N.Y.; Dearborn, Mich.; Kenilworth, Ill.; Edina, Minn. and Darien, Conn., which achieved fame as the model for the town that barred Jews in the 1947 movie "Gentlemen's Agreement."

And, Loewen adds, Chevy Chase.

These suburbs did not post sundown signs. They saved their racist language for their legal documents, adding "restrictive covenants" to their deeds. Chevy Chase, for instance, had a restrictive covenant barring sale or lease to "any person of negro blood" or "any person of the Semetic [sic] race."

Washington Grove, the Montgomery County town, once had a restrictive covenant barring "anyone of a race whose death rate is of a higher percentage than that of the white or Caucasian race."

"It's tied to life expectancy," Loewen says, laughing. "They make it sound as if it's a health measure."

Greenbelt -- one of three model suburban communities built by the federal government in the 1930s -- was originally restricted to whites. In those days, the Federal Housing Administration advocated restrictive covenants, claiming that they "provide the surest protection against undesirable encroachment."


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