Critical Family History and Sundown Towns

J. W. Loewen, Sundown Towns

J. W. Loewen, Sundown Towns

Christine: I am having a conversation with James W. Loewen, author of many well-known books including Lies my Teacher Told Me and Teaching What Really Happened. We are talking about critical family history and sundown towns. Jim, I didn’t know I had grown up in a sundown town until I read your book Sundown Towns. I knew the town was almost all-white, but I had more or less accepted the dominant idea that this was so because people of color didn’t choose to live there. For readers who aren’t sure what we are talking about, can you clarify: what is a sundown town?

 Jim Loewen: Sundown towns are communities that for decades were — some still are — “all-white” on purpose. I put “all-white” in quotation marks because some towns were viciously unwelcoming of African Americans even while harboring one and sometimes two black families. When Pana, Illinois, for example, forced out its African American population in 1899, whites did not make the black barber and his family leave. He had a white clientele and many acquaintances — even friends — in the white community. No one had a complaint about him. Pana did post signs at its city limits, signs that remained up at least until 1960, and permitted no other African Americans to move in, so it definitely became a sundown town. So I use <10 African Americans, not zero, as my population cutoff; for larger cities I use <0.1%.

Christine: Does a sundown town have to have a sign, like the one on the cover?

Jim Loewen: No, most towns never had a sign. Most towns never passed an ordinance. Moreover, the term “sundown town” is unknown in some parts of the nation. Nevertheless, residents understood that African Americans — and sometimes Jews, Chinese Americans, Native Americans, or members of other groups — were not welcome.

Christine: When did towns go sundown?

Jim Loewen: A few towns kept out African Americans even before the Civil War. Most went sundown much later, however, between 1890 and 1940. This is the infamous “Nadir of Race Relations,” when the entire U.S., North as well as South, went more racist in our ideology than at any other point. Sundown suburbs came a little later, mostly forming from 1905 to 1968.

Christine: So, when researching family history, it appears that not only did racism in one form or another shape where our ancestors lived, but after Reconstruction, white people increasingly used various processes to create white towns, which had the effect of restricting where people of color could live. Very possibly most of us who live in the U.S. and who have ancestry going back at least a couple of generations have been touched by sundown towns. How might we look into the connection between sundown towns and family history?

Jim Loewen: First, use oral history. Older family members often know when their ancestors first got to a community. They also often know if their community was all-white by accident or by design. They may remember details. For instance, perhaps a black student was in the public schools briefly in the 1950s. Of course, no one intends to move to a town briefly. No family goes through all the trouble to enroll a child in school briefly. So already, that’s evidence that the town was not all white by accident. Sometimes people will remember additional details — a brick through a window, a child beaten up at school, DWB stops.

Second, make use of the “manuscript census,” the actual census enumeration. Down through 1940, the manuscript census tells the race of every resident, as well as their address, occupation, age, and sex. Just as a family historian might find an influx of “McDonalds” between, say, 1900 and 1910, s/he might find an abrupt decrease in “C” (for “colored”) in the race column. Sometimes, the names no longer there can be found in the latter year in the nearest interracial town. Then you can contact descendants and learn why they left.

Christine: I would also like to direct readers to your Sundown Towns Map, which I’ve used periodically in my own family history research. You make available a very useful set of tools. On the map of the U.S., one can simply click on a state to see a list of possible sundown towns in that state, then click on a town and read documentation of its history as a sundown town.

Jim Loewen: Readers need to know that if a town does not appear on a state’s listing, that does not mean that it wasn’t a sundown town. It may mean that I simply haven’t learned about it yet. Your readers can perform a great service by sending me information about towns that they think kept out African Americans (or other groups). Eventually their material will get posted, anonymously if they so wish. My email address is

Christine: Thank you! What would you say is the most important insight a family historian might gain from asking about sundown towns in their family’s past?”

Jim Loewen: Some families learn happy facts. Recently I spoke with a woman in her 50s. Her mother took down the sign at the edge of Oolitic, a small town in Indiana, and hid it in the family garage. She was proud of her mother, and rightly so. More often, white families did nothing. If they opposed the rule, they only said so within the confines of their own homes, so their opposition never registered in the community.

Christine: That was the case in my own family.

Jim Loewen: Even when that’s the case, that’s an important insight, for it teaches that we white folks were “beneficiaries” of this outrageous custom and did nothing to change it. Black families, too, often pass down little about the bad things that happened to them long after slavery. Young people need to know what their elders went through. All Americans need to know about the Nadir. Few do. It does not fit with our national storyline, evident in every high school history textbook, of unrelenting automatic progress. We used to die young; now we have modern medicine. We used to be intolerant; now we are tolerant. We used to have slavery; now we have Obama. We used to be racist; now we aren’t. The idea that we might have grown more racist for decade after decade after 1890 is hard to grasp. The idea that college campuses, towns, whole counties allowed black residents in 1880 but not by 1920 — hard to grasp. The idea that Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first black ball player in the Major Leagues, but only the first after 1890 — hard to grasp. Family history is often the most powerful way to grasp these national trends and processes.

Christine: Thank you so much, Jim, not only for this conversation but also for the terrific books and tools you’ve been giving us.

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