Book World Live

James W. Loewen
Author, "Sundown Towns"
Tuesday, October 25, 2005; 3:00 PM

James Loewen is the author of "Sundown Towns," a new work about the alleged thousands of American towns that were kept deliberately whites-only. His book was reviewed in the Oct. 23 issue of Book World .

Loewen will be online Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his book and a hidden dimension of American race relations.

Loewen, who taught race relations for 20 years at the University of Vermont, has a Ph.D in sociology from Harvard University.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


James Loewen: I am really looking forward to this "talk," although since I have not participated in prior forums, I'm nervous about the technology of it all.

SUNDOWN TOWNS is a new "topic," in a way, never writen about before, and I hope I can convince you during this session that they are worthy of your investigation. When I began my research, I expected to find maybe 10 such towns in Illinois, my native state, where I planned to do more research than in any other single state, and maybe 50 across the country. To my shock, I found 472, I believe, in Illinois, and there are about 10,000 in the US -- a majority of all incorporated communities in Illinois, and probably in Oregon, Indiana, and various other Northern states. Come along, as we journey to some of them.


Washington, DC: Growing up in Southern Illinois, I heard it said that Omaha, Illinois, got its name from the day some blacks tried to settle in the town. As the white residents ran the blacks out of town, the blacks cried "Oh ma ha!" -O, my hair].

Wanda Avila

James Loewen: I suspect "Oh ma ha" is an urban legend, if you can have an urban legend in so small a town. [I looked up Omaha, IL, in my atlas, and could not find it!] However, like many urban legends, there is probably a kernel of truth: probably Omaha, wherever it is, did drive out a family of black would-be immigrants.


Reston, Va: From the review, there's not much statistical analysis, or maybe the reviewer wasn't interested in the data. Why wouldn't Census data show these towns--certainly they've always collected racial breakdowns?

There's also an absence of the statistical universe--1,000 or 3,000 or more towns sounds like a big number, but is the U.S. total 10,000 or 100,000?

Finally, any idea on the effect of the laws. Did they evict residents or keep out potential migrants? One thinks of the migration from the South to the big cities of the North being based on Southern repression and poverty and the greater freedom and opportunity to be found in Chicago, Detroit, etc. Does your research challenge or modify that generalization?

James Loewen: Census data certainly show the racial breakdown of American towns, and in the portfolio of illustrations in SUNDOWN TOWNS I even publish a page of the 1970 census for Indiana. It shows an overwhelming proportion of small towns (on this table, pop. 1,000 to 2,500) with NO blacks at all, even though these little towns DO have sprinklings of "others" (non-black nonwhites).

Yes, there are some statistics in SUNDOWN TOWNS. Not enough to numb the mind, but enough to convince you, I think.


Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Loewen,

First of all, I am a big fan of your books "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "Lies Across America." The former inspired me to work towards my doctorate in history, even though my BA is in English. Fascinating, inspiring stuff. I will be reading "Sundown Towns" soon.

To get to my question: I have frequently thought about the implications of segregated housing in America, and the ways in which it affects the educational experience of students. Everything I know about this correlation is in regards to inner cities (such that Chevy Chase would apply, given the high concentration of African American students in Washington, DC schools). Do you think a similar effect occurs in rural areas as well, or are most of the sundown towns you know of in proximity to an urban area? In other words, if a rural town refused to allow black residents, thus creating a segregated housing situation, would that have an educational impact on school-age black children, or would they not necessarily live on the fringes of such a neighborhood?

Thank you!


James Loewen: Thanks for your kind words about my "LIES" books.

Chevy Chase was invented as a sundown town (well, legally, four different sundown towns), and one of the principal reasons for the invention of Rock Creek Park, by Sen. Newlands, developer of Chevy Chase, was to keep it that way.

There are many independent sundown towns as well. Many of these would allow blacks to live or at least spend the night nearby -- in the rural so long as it was outside the city limits. Peru, IL, for example, hosted a band from the U. of Mich. in maybe 1970 and it included a couple of black players, and the LaSalle-Peru HS band hosted the players overnight, so they put the black players with white LPHS players who lived in the rural, and no problems emerged.


Harrisburg, Pa.: The review shows that you have written a fascinating book. I had always argued there is definite economic segregation with zoning and building laws to create de facto racial segregation. It is interesting that this was literally stated policy during the past century. How were you able to document all this? Were was information about these practices kept?

James Loewen: Several people have asked: how did I document all these places? There is half a chapter in SUNDOWN TOWNS telling how. Briefly, I often had to rely on oral history. This is a topic where oral history can be more accurate than written. Anna, IL, for example, drove out its black population in 1909 and has been known from that day to this as "Ain't No Niggers Allowed -- ANNA." In 1954 it published a fat coffee table history, "ANNA, IL., A CENTURY OF PROGRESS," 450 pages, a paragraph on every single local business, even the Dairy Queen. But not one word on 1909, on the origin of the slang meaning for "Anna," not one word on Anna as a sundown town. Conversely, people will TELL you about it, with details, verbally, especially face-to-face.


North Haven, Conn.: How did the discoveries you made overlap and reinforce covenant laws?

James Loewen: Sundown suburbs arose somewhat after sundown towns -- most in the period 1905-1968. They used a variety of methods to form and stay all-white, usually relying, like indep. towns, on violence as the final resort. But many used "restrictive covenants," and I have amassed a collection of these from Vermont to San Diego. Typically they said, "No portion of these premises shall ever be sold to or occupied by anyone other than members of the white or Caucasian race." Then they often added, "Nothing in the foregoing shall preclude live-in servants."


Annapolis, Md: good afternoon, VT's coming up big on-line today: the BW review quotes you, "3000 -15,000 independent towns went sundown, mostly between 1890-1930." What percent is that -- how many ind. towns were there total? What about other minorities, were they too kept out? In my own lifetime, born 1956, it seems to me that nearly all people tend to 'segregate' themselves. Maybe we're not color-blind or rascism free. Yet. thank you.

James Loewen: I don't know how many towns there are in the US. Of course, it depends on size. In Illinois, I DO know: in 1970 (the peak year for sundown towns), Illinois had about 650 towns larger than 1,000 (up to and including Chicago, of course). I show that 422 were probably sundown towns, and in addition I have evidence of 50 towns with sundown policies but fewer than 1,000 population. Therefore I conclude that about 2/3 of all Illinois towns were sundown towns.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Mr Loewen,

I look forward to reading your book. Having spent almost 50 years living throughout the state of Illinois, I am appalled at hearing your statistics of how rampant the racism was in that state. I am a recent transplant to Indy, and wonder did you find a lot of Sundown towns in Indiana, due to the fact (so I hear) that there was a large KKK presence in this state?

James Loewen: Indiana has JUST AS MANY sundown towns as Illinois, perhaps slightly more. It has at least fifteen whole counties that kept blacks out pretty much throughout the entire county, often enforced by the sheriff. There are two reasons why I only found maybe 190 sundown towns in Indiana: (1) I did less research in Indiana, and (2) Indiana is smaller, with fewer people, so it has fewer towns, hence fewer sundown towns. The proportion of sundown towns is at least as high, though.


Anonymous: Hello,

did you research any other types of discrimination other than prejudice against African-Americans? I know the name of the high school teams in the town of Pekin Illinois was the "chinks" until very recently. I hear you can still buy "Chinks" t-shirts if you ask for them in certain sporting goods stores in the area to this day.

James Loewen: Yes, two years ago I bought a "Pekin Chinks" t-shirt and include a photo of it in SUNDOWN TOWNS. (I do not wear the shirt, tho.) :) Pekin, a city of about 30,000, was a notorious sundown town, and I include the shirt to indicate how bad the rhetoric can be in sundown towns. Of course, Washington, DC, can name a professional team "Redskins," so a town does not HAVE to be a sundown town to use white supremacist rhetoic. But it helps.


Rockville, Md.: There's a phenomenon I've only seen in the South, of twin towns in rural areas, one all-white and the other all-black. I'm from New England and I had never seen this until I started traveling in the South in my mid-twenties.

Is this the same kind of thing you're talking about with sundown towns? The article makes it sound like sundown towns are mostly a Midwestern phenomenon.

James Loewen: You might email me off-list,, and tell me of these paired communities. I know this phenomenon more in the Midwest, Long Island, PA, CA, and less commonly in the South.

The traditional South rarely indulged in sundown towns, for reasons I discuss in the book. Why would you make your maid leave?! Made no sense to them.

On Long Island, however, there are at least ten little majority black "townships" where black working class folks lived, then communited to sundown suburbs at dawn to start the coal furnace, cook breakfast, etc. And we see "Colp," near Herrin, IL, and "Chevy Chase Heights," next to Indiana, PA, etc., etc.


Prince George's County, Md.: Thank you Mr. Loewen for being on-line to talk about this topic. This is an uncomfortable question to ask, and likewise probably a difficult one to answer: What was the real reason whites wanted to keep out blacks. Racism (based on skin color) is too general a term; what was the real basis. At the risk of being the devil's advocate, was it because of cultural differences. For example, black neighborhoods do have a disportionally high crime rate. For example, Prince Geroge's County has the greatest number of wealthy blacks, and a high number serving in high offices, yet the crime rate is way too high. Also, today, there may not be forced, blatant white-only neighborhoods, yet white liberals never choose to live in black neighborhoods, no matter how nice they look.

James Loewen: I hope this question was indeed uncomfortable to ask. Read my chapter, "Origin Myths and Historical Causes," and it'll help your thinking. Many towns became sundown -- expelled their blacks -- upon learning of the misbehavior of one black person. For example, Vienna, IL, burned out its black community quite late -- 1954 -- because one (perhaps two) black(s) molested a white woman and her daughter. Vienna has no black household to this date. This kind of collective responsibility is NEVER done to whites. How could we -- do it to ourselves?


Greenbelt, Md.: I've just moved from a Sundown town - Shelby, Ohio. I'm a minister and one of the first things I heard when I got there from Hyattsville, MD was that there "usta be" a sign at the edge of town telling "n....s" to be out of town by sundown. Didn't surprise me as that part of Ohio was settled mostly from the South during WWI and WWII and Ohio has/had more Klan members than Alabama. I was, however, surprised by the fellow who told me. Didn't figure him to be a racist. Your critics seem to be worried that your sources are anecdotal. Go survey Shelby and anyone who has lived there 10 years or more will fill you another volume of true anecdotes.

James Loewen: Yes, Shelby was a sundown town. Ironically, so was Greenbelt. Indeed, Greenbelt was one of seven towns invented during the FDR administration to employ people and provide examples of well-planned towns of tomorrow. Of course, "well-planned" equaled "all white."


Washington, DC: Are you optimistic about the future of American race relations? As a student of sociology, your books and others (particularly "Savage Inequalities") lead me to wonder if we will ever achieve true racial equality. I have to say, I am not hopeful, although I intend to work towards fostering it as much as I can.

James Loewen: Yes, I am optimistic, although the current administration has not helped matters. Both Pres. Bush and Vice Pres. Cheney chose to live in a sundown town for many years -- indeed, they both chose the SAME sundown town, Highland Park, TX. The very first black family ever to buy a home there did so in Feb. of 2004, I believe (perhaps 2003). Of course, Mssrs. Bush and Cheney now live in an interracial town -- Washington -- but their lack of knowledge and concern about race relations may date to their sundown town experiences or may explain why they chose to live there.

I must say, however, that at least half of all sundown towns have given up their exclusionary policies in the last 15 years or so. So I remain optimistic.


Atlanta, Ga.: Indiana is an intersting state. I lived there during a fellowship in the 80s. The state is oddly insular---you see licnese plates from neighborhing states, but the Indiana plates largely stop at the stateline. The Klan ran the Democratic party in the 20s and xenophobia reportedly led the town fathers of Indianapolis from accepting auto factories in the early 20th century because of the European imigrant workers they'd bring.

When I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, I was told that this sizable, university town had no Blacks (other than students) until they were literally brought in with the appliance and electronics factories that located there in the 50s and 60s. Are their similar tales about ostensibly conservative corporations integrating other sundown towns?

James Loewen: In many communities, corporations have played a positive role. In Danville, IL, for example, Quaker Oats refused to locate until Danville passed an open housing law. (And Danville wasn't even a sundown town, just a highly segregated one.)


Washington, DC: I'm looking forward to reading your book, actually I plan to buy it after work today.

My family is from Illinois as well. My parents grew up in Chicago (NW side) and Waukegan in the 50s and 60s. It seems to me that they both lived in fairly integrated neighborhoods, and I certainly did as a child in Waukegan in the 80s. Were many of these Sundown Towns in the Chicago area? Or were they further "downstate?" Were they geographically concentrated or spread evenly throughout the state? Thanks for answering my question!

James Loewen: Sundown towns are all over IL, but the Chicago suburbs were about 80% sundown. (So were the L.A. suburbs, and so are the Detroit suburbs.)


Columbia, Md.: What led to the demise of most 'sundown towns'? Was it prevailing sensibilities of new whites moving in from elsewhere or the old guard dying off or some other reason?

James Loewen: I think the reason sundown towns are now on the wane is a change in the zeitgeist -- the spirit of the times -- owing originally to the Civil Rights movement. Also, in 1968, two specific changes: (1) in the aftermath of the assassination of MLK Jr., and probably only do-able at that moment in time, Congress passed and LBJ signed what is commonly known as the "Fair Housing Act," and the federal government finally changed sides, from fomenting sundown towns and neighborhoods, to opposing them. And (2) a Supreme court decision , JONES V MEYER,held that housing discrimination was illegal. Little enforcement, but at least it was not openly illegal.


Clifton, Va: Very interesting article. Since I am a Penn State alum, I was wondering if you had researched the town of State College PA. While I was a student there in the early 80's it was 'discovered' that housing ordinances specifically prohibited minorities from living in certain areas. I'm sure the people living there knew about it, but it was a shock to most of the students there at the time. Pennsylvania was also the only northern state under court ordered desegragation at the college level, since the state policy had for a long time been to have black students go to Lincoln University.

James Loewen: Thanks for this information about State College. Indiana, PA, was a near-sundown town (and another college town). Indeed, I suspect that PA had/has more than 600 sundown towns, more than any other state -- partly because PA has more towns than any other state, just about. If you learn more about State College, tell me via email --


Re Annapolis, MD: Mr. Loewen, would you contend that people do not "segregate themselves" across the board, but that white people are the primary motivators of segregation? I've read sociological studies reporting that black citizens tend to want to integrate neighborhoods, but that white citizens do not want them to, hence blowing a hole in the idea that racially segregated housing now is a preference. Would you agree?

James Loewen: Every group has some members who want the comfort of living in a neighborhood with lots of folks who share their culture (and even their looks). But mainly re African Americans (and to some degree Jews in suburbia and Chinese in the West) have OTHERS required them to live in certain places and only those places. In sociology we have an index, "D", that goes from 0 (total equality, every block mith about the same mix) to 100 (total apartheid, not one black in a white block and vice versa). For Italian Americans, at their most concentrated, D - about 50, maybe 45. Same for other ethnic groups. For blacks in 1890, about 45, maybe 40. But then, during the 20th century, D grew and grew, reaching 88 in Chicago, 90 in Detroit, and an incredible 96 in West Palm Beach by 1970. This was owing to sundown suburbs and sundown neighborhoods. Not free choice!


Baltimore, Md.: I'm a black man and I stayed in Vienna, IL during my road trip vacation five years ago. I didn't notice any hostile attitudes while there, but then again they've got to be pretty overt for me to pick up on them.

However, I did feel a little uncomfortable in other southern Illinois towns along US 45 such as Harrisburg. I got some odd looks at stop lights and at a gas station. I thought it was just the Maryland tags on my car, but now I know better.

I look forward to reading your book.

James Loewen: Actually, Harrisburg was never a sundown town. We have reached the interesting point now where black tourists can spend the night safely and comfortably in a sundown town (as you did) but cannot live there.


Houghton, Mich.: Based on my own casual obversations and heresay evidence, "sundowning" is still very much alive, even if not institutionalized. For example, a sheriff visiting a black householder, and telling the family they can expect trouble - not from him, but their neighbors.

That is, I don't think sundowning practically ended with the advent of civil rights.


James Loewen: No, sundown towns are alive ane well, and I did not mean to imply otherwise. The 1964 civil Rights Act, for example, was not enforced by the federal government, not really, but by African Americans. That is, after a black family was denied service by a restaurant, motel, etc., it might complain to the Justice Dept., and while the latter would not do much, often it did at least send FBI agents to interview the management, which has a certain chilling impact on the practice of exclusion. But in sundown towns, there was no one to complain! No one to integrate the schools! etc. So they have remained in a time-warp dating back to before 1954.


Munich, Germany: Was the term, "Sundown Town" in common usage in the 1930's? Were articles written about the original town in California?

Also, where did blacks move to after being run out of Sundown Towns? Did they create black towns? It almost sounds like South Africa's township concept under Apartheid if this was the case.

James Loewen: "Sundown town" was commonly used in the '30s, yes. There was no one "original town" in CA. I must have typed in haste if I implied there was. There ahve been a couple of towns, at least, that were sundown since before the Civil War. Most went sundown during the terrible Nadir of Race Relations, 1890-1940. Yes, sometimes blacks did end up in what I call "black townships," a deliberate allusion to South Africa. More often, they wound up in places like the South Side of Chicago.

In 1890, you see, blacks in Illinois, for example, were more rural than whites. The population of Illinois blacks in Chicago was 23%, while that for whites was 28%. Then between 1890 and 1940, blacks are driven from town after town and end up in the larger cities.


Washington, DC: Where are you from in Illinois?

James Loewen: I grew up in Decatur, IL, right in the middle of the state. As I was growing up, I knew that all the little towns around Decatur were all white -- Monticello, Niantic, Pana, etc. It never occurred to me, however, that they were all white ON PURPOSE.

Then, in Oct. 2001, when I was the keynote speaker for the Decatur Writers Conference (owing to the success of LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME), I had an "aha" experience. At the end of my talk, I mentioned this new topic I was working on, and invited folks to come on down and talk with me if they knew something about it. To my amazement, 20 people came down, and told me stories, with details, abut Monticello, Niantic, Pana, Villa Grove, etc., etc. And I realized they were all all-white ON PURPOSE!


Herndon, Va.: There was an editorial in the Post just a day or two ago about a trend in some areas of D.C. where more and more white people are moving into overwhelmingly black neighborhoods, and how many of the current residents are uncomfortable with this "gentrification". How does this fit in with your view that it is mostly whites who are more comfortable living among their own kind?

James Loewen: I did not write "whites are comfortable among their own kind" and am fully aware that some blacks want their neighborhood to stay all-black or overwhelmingly so.

I have a long take on gentrification. Can't type it all here. Two quick points: (1) rich white folks have to live SOMEWHERE, do they not? We cannot just take them out and execute them! So where would we have them choose? a segregated enclave, all-white and rich? or a neighborhood with all sorts of folks? (2)Gentrification rarely drives out blacks, and gentrifying neighborhoods stay multi-racial and multi-class for decades.


Arlington, Va.: Can you talk more about the oral histories you used to determine sundown towns? I am just maybe a bit skeptical. If I went to Northern Minnesota and took oral histories from everyone, I might be convinced there was a giant woodsman with a blue ox who cleared huge forests. Can you explain more?

James Loewen: Is there a reason to privilege something written over something spoken? The blue ox legend, incidentally, was written, not spoken.

What do YOU think, when a perfectly reasonable person -- let's say, a college professor, seems to teach her classes OK, seems not to be crazy -- has this conversation with me: I know Pinckneyville had a sundown sign, because I remember the following conversation with my Dad, when we were returning to Pville in the car, after a trip to the country. I saw the sign, and I said, "No, Daddy, that's not right, they meant "Colors." (Colors was our word for crayons.) "No Colors allowed." And he laughed and laughed and said, no, no, Susie, "Coloreds," you know, a word for darkies, for niggers, "no Coloreds Allowed." Do you think she made up this entire story? Or that Pville had such a sign?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Have you looked at the subject of racial segregation within communities? For instance, I recall researchers claiming that Philadelphia was one of the most racially segregated cities in America even though, in total, it appeared to be an ethnically diverse city. There were whole blocks that not only racially segregated yet often 90 percent or more of its residents were ethnically segregated.

James Loewen: Sometimes I treat "sundown neighborhoods," especially when these are huge. West Lawn, Chicago, for example, depending on how it is bounded, has 25,000 to 101,000 residents.

But there are other books, good ones, on the segregation within cities. What is amazing, and what I tried to remedy, is the complete lack of treatment of entire towns that excluded blacks totally. Large cities like Appleton, Wisc., for gosh sakes!


Washington, DC: Interesting issue about covenants. I recently found out that in the WV city where my parents live, many of the homes were originally sold with covenants prohibiting sale to Italians (the main population imported to work in the coal mines there). The homes have been kept in the families since the 1940s, so only now are the children and grandchildren of the original owners discovering this fact. All of this is amusing because Italian families now run the city.

James Loewen: If you would share such a covenant with me, I'd love to have a copy.


Alexandria, Va: How did you determine which towns in America were "Sun down towns." In other words, what were your criteria for determining if any given town made the list.

James Loewen: Very good question. I devote considerable space to telling my criteria and defending them. We're out of time here, but you'll find my defense in the book. I think you'll find I was pretty thorough.


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