"Whites Only After Dark": Historian James Loewen uncovers Illinois' legacy of Sundown Towns

For those who think the beginning of the semester is all about students binge drinking and bum rushing the field dressed as the Chief, think again. No fake Indians rushed the field at the football game last night, and over 200 packed the house at Allen Hall today to hear James Loewen speak about the legacy of racism in Illinois. Loewen, a historian originally from Illinois, is author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and more recently Sundown Towns. He is in residence at U of I’s Allen Residence Hall until Thursday and will cover these topics: what history textbooks leave out, historical markers afraid to tell the truth about the past, and how standardized tests lie. View the complete schedule here: http://www.housing.uiuc.edu/living/unit1/guest_2007-08/Loewen.asp

Loewen detailed a work in progress; he has uncovered 500 Sundown Towns in Illinois alone. A sundown town is a town that is all white on purpose.

“I knew many of the cities around Champaign Urbana were all white, but I didn’t know they were that way on purpose.” Loewen estimates that there are 10,000 sundown towns in America. Although sundown towns have been officially illegal since 1916, this was not enforced until the 1968, and sundown towns persist to this day.

He asked for students to help him by sharing stories from their communities – antidotes that he could use as leads for his investigation. He said his book was partly inspired by conversations at Allen Hall, where he has been visiting for a number of years. When students heard of his investigation, they came forward with stories from their communities throughout the state.

For example, Villa Grove had a siren that would sound from the city water tower at 6 pm each night to tell blacks to leave town. They stopped the siren in 1999. Loewen has found 14 sirens in towns across the U.S. that sounded at 6 pm – six were to tell blacks to get out of town and two to make Native Americans leave town. Loewen is still investigating the others.

Anna, Illinois drove out their black population in 1909 and has been a sundown town ever since. Anna used to have signs greeting visitors on the edge of town that said: “Nigger don’t let the sun go down on you in Anna.” Lynchings were popular public events drawing visitors from surrounding towns. It as not uncommon that after visiting a lynching in a nearby town, residents would return to their own town and drive black folks out.

In addition to Ana and Villa Grove, nearby Monticello, Mahomet, Effingham, Arcola, Homer, St Joseph have strong evidence of having been sundown towns. In some cases there are still no black residents in these towns meaning they remain as sundown towns.

Loewen encouraged the audience to uncover the history of race in their communities through tapping into oral history: “people will tell things they won’t write down.” He advises: start with the library, ask who knows the most about the history of the town, go to the nursing home, and find out how people know what they know. Sometimes the beginning of a story is found through indirect statements such as: “there used to be a black family on main street, but then their house burned down.” Sometimes the conversation ends there.

Many residents of sundown towns are uncomfortable admitting their history, but Loewen asserts the need to face it. “Don’t we want Germany to remember what happened? Don’t we want them to teach about it in their schools? Why wouldn’t we do the same here?”

Lynchings, which rose hand in hand with sundown towns, has many books on the subject - “nearly 1 book for every 10 recorded lynchings” Loewen mused. But the legacy of 10,000 sundown towns had no books on the subject until Loewen wrote one. Why? Loewen offers: “when we have justice in the present, then we can have truth about the past.” There are few if any lynchings of blacks to this day, but geographic exclusion, segregated neighborhoods, persist to this day.

Loewen ended with some suggestions for the future: “We need to call sundown towns out.” And, he said, sundown towns need to: 1) admit it, 2) apologize, and 3) affirm with action (not just committees to study it) that the town has ended the practice of exclusion. Other actions he recommends are to sell your house to a black family if you are white, move into a sundown town ready to make change if you are black, and deny these “exclusive” towns and suburbs their status as “nice places to live.”

James Loewen has a website with a searchable database to find available information on the racial history of towns throughout the U.S. and a place for visitors to report their stories. The site includes also includes some pointers to do investigation at: http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/sundowntowns.php

Loewen’s schedule for the next three days is:
Mon 9/10
7pm - Lies My Teacher Told Me - Perhaps the best-selling book by a living sociologist, "Lies" puts back what high school American history textbooks leave out.

Tues 9/11
7pm - Writing History in Stone - Historical markers, monuments, and museums that are afraid to tell the truth about the past.

Weds 9/12
7pm – How Standardized Tests Like the SAT, ACT, and GRE Lie About Your Abilities

What Affect On The Jury Pools?

This "Sundown Mentality" has a huge impact on our local criminal justice system. Most of the police department resides in these quiet rural communities, and so it's logical our police departments keep getting in trouble with the state-wide racial profiling numbers on traffic stops. Officer discretion on who to stop, who to issue a warning ticket, who to effect an arrest, is horribly tainted by the racism officers live with everyday back home. U of I law professor, attorney and county board member Steve Beckett has been conducting a "Courtwatch program" with the U of I law students and his group reports seeing black defendants in 70-80% of the cases. And if the jury pool is pulled from these sundown towns, what black defendant has any chance with these people when they've been indoctrinated with the story of blacks are criminals? It would be legitimate trial strategy for defense attorneys to begin exempting any potential juror who lives in Mahomet or Villa Grove. Blacks are too often guilty until proven innocent in Champaign County.

Villa Grove = Douglas County

For a Champaign County jury, there would be no one from Villa Grove in the pool. Villa Grove is located in Douglas County. The only circumstance where those residents would be commingled with those drawn from Champaign County would be for a federal jury.

Your point is otherwise well taken, though.

While I respect Mr. Beckett's efforts to improve the legitimacy and fairness of the jury system in Champaign County, having heard him speak about this work leaves me with misgivings about what he can actually accomplish with his current approach. This seems to be to not question the basic premises or law behind jury selection, but to try to gain a more diverse set of jurors in the pool under the current law.

Unfortunately, Loewen's work demonstrates how this is unlikely to result in a jury of one's peers once the rural-urban mix is taken into account. Thus, it appears that Beckett's quest is largely window-dressing for a legal system that pretends that racial disparities are a problem external to the system, when they are actually generated within the system itself. Solving this will require far more fundamental reform, including changes in the law itself, to accomplish the goal that Beckett claims he is pursuing.

Dear anonymous – September

Dear anonymous – September 10, 2007 – 1:56am,

 How exactly do you know where "most of the police department" lives?  I think you are assuming that they live in what you describe as quiet rural communities... 

Dear Annonymous 1:43p.m.

Dear Annonymous 1:43p.m.

How exactly do you know the majority of the police officers don't live outside the Champaign-Urbana city limits? I think you are assuming most of the officers live in the more urban environment that is Champaign and Urbana. They don't, unless you can explain otherwise.   

This can go back and forth

This can go back and forth forever...  anonymous – September 10, 2007 – 1:56am made the statement that they did.  I would like to know how he or she knows that.  It is not for me to prove that they do or don't, it is for the other to prove that they do.  I never made a statement that where they live, only that the other was making an assumption...

And since you are making the statement that they do, please prove it.  I doubt you can.

"...please prove it.  I

"...please prove it.  I doubt you can."

Is that because the citizenry is not supposed to know where police officers live? Gee, why is that? What a great way to improve community/police relations: a secret group of people police a community where they don't live and no one knows who they are and how they are trained to handle a variety of situations. But whenever the police are questioned regarding one of their latest overly-aggressive blunders, we get press releases telling us that the police are human like us and everything they do is according to some "police procedure" that is not even publicly available. If these cops don't want to leave their squad cars, fine, but could Chief Finney at least make the police manual available for all to read? No, he won't. There's secret police tactics he doesn't want the criminals to know. Rather than serve and protect, the police departments are adopting the hunt and arrest mentality as their top priority, with all the military intelligence trappings that make them more distant than ever. Why don't the Champaign Police post a photo roster in the lobby like the Urbana Police Department does? What is wrong with getting to know the people who enforce the laws, and serve the community? Instead of the "Department" offering the one or two hand-picked officers who do all the fun public relations stuff, let's publish the entire roster of the police department, since they are on our payroll afterall, and have a listing of badge numbers. Or are the police afraid of accountability?    

Your assumption that Annonymous 1:56a.m. is wrong assumes the majority of officers don't live in the surrounding sundown towns. Why can't you explain where officers do live if you are so certain Annonymous 1:56a.m. is wrong?  Interesting you don't challenge the statistical fact that blacks are overrepresented in the county's criminal cases and are most often targeted by police for arresting. A county with a 15% black population has criminal cases running at about 70% black. Oh wait, I forgot whites are superior and don't ever commit crimes. Is it so unreasonable that the 90% all-white police force may be influenced by their place of residence and their town's cultural environment? 

Go to the website posted

Go to the website posted above ( http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/sundowntowns.php ) and find the town you live in, the town you grew up in, or a town near either one. I picked Homer, because the twon is near Champaign. http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/sundowntownsshow.php?id=1595

Most of what is written is presumptive. Especially the part concerning the murder of a black man in 1990.

"A White man killed a Black man around 1990, and was either never charged, or let off as "Self-defense."

This would be rather easy to research. It appears that who ever gave Dr. Loewen this material jumped to several conclusions. As for Homer being a Sundown town today, very unlikely at all, although the page says "surely". I know of a mix raced family living just fine in Homer as well as an Indian (not Native American) family there as well. These familys are both friends of mine, and if there were issues like those insinuated by that page, they would have moved.

Don't get me wrong, there is no doubt in my mind that these towns and cities still exist. But it appears that some of those listed on Dr. Loewens site are based upon the fact that they are small towns and must fit in the mold he created. This is also not a slight against Dr. Loewen. He comes straight out and asks for help in researching and locating these towns.

Like I said, I do believe that these towns do exist, but of the evidence provided on his site that I read, provide a shakey, at best, foundation for declaring a racist or Sundown town.

Persistence of Racism Is More than the Existence of Racist Laws

No historically useful analysis of racism is possible without acknowledging its cultural basis. Many, including a majority of conservatives, presume that once racist laws, like the sundown laws, are repealed that racism no longer exists. For people with that mindset, the need to address racism ended once African-Americans had secured the right to vote, equal access to public accommodations, and the right to attend the same schools as white people. This simplistic point of view is simply wrong.

Racism is a cultural phenomenon. Racist laws were only a thin overlay that disguised the deep cultural foundation of racism within American society, so formally ending them did little to affect the endemic racism that enacted them and continues to pervade our society.

Do people really think that the white flight that feeds the growth of such bedroom communities as Mahomet, St. Joseph, Monticello, and Homer has no racial component? Think again. It may be true that a few people of color live in those communities and that no formal, legal bar to their living in those communities exists, but that is not the issue. The issue is that it is an unstated assumption when one invests in property there, one can expect to have little contact with minority populations, that one's children will go to largely white schools, and that one can feel "safe" from having to deal with such issues, including discussing them in an intellectually honest manner.

Is it a statistical fluke that such communities remain overwhelmingly white? That might be the case if it was _one_ community among the many that surround the Champaign-Urbana urban area that remained largely white. The fact is that such a community as Rantoul, with it's rich mix of ethnicities is the exception that makes the rule.

Sundown communities have a legacy of racism that they must still struggle to overcome -- or they will continue to replicate it. You can object to that characterization, but it is unfortunately far more correct than in error. It is not the only factor in the growth of such communities and their replication of a certain statistically-out-of-step with the rest of the United States racial homogeneity, but it is a preponderant one.


Interestingly enough I am from the Chicagoland area and met one of the daughter's of this Indian family at a camp in Indiana about 5 years back.  And I go to school here in Champaign.  Isn't weird that that I know exactly the family you're talking about.  Without any specifics whatsoever? Don't you think that might mean your Homer is not as diverse as you might think? You can't use oh yea I'm not racist I have a black friend logic or argument.  Just because they are there doesn't mean it might be a comfortable place for them to live at all times.  How would your town react if more latinos, blacks, indians, or other ethnic groups moved in?  Its good that you have no problem with it but not everyone thinks the same.


This may have been the case in the sixties, but why do we always harbor on the past instead of looking forward.  Segregation continues because people feel more comfortable with people they can relate to.  Other than the C-U, Champaign County is a very rural county where people of other ethnic backgrounds may not like living in a small farming community with nothing to do.  I don't believe it is the communities fault, but simply people living where they feel comfortable.  Check out this webpage.


Racism Is Uncomfortable, Including "self-segregation"

I don't doubt that some people feel more comfortable in certain situations, much the way some people feel more comfortable wearing white robes and a silly pointy hood. At least we know what _they_ really feel and think.

Most racism these days is more subtle than that. For instance, using the very lame excuse that "self-segregation" is something different than racism. It's not. It's like there are red apples, green apples, and yellow apples. Bite into any of them and it's still an apple.

'self-segregation" is still racism. And factoring out racism ignores the economic factors created by its legacy that leads to the limited choices of where to live for some and the multitude of choices others have.

To Anonymous at 9:16am - I

To Anonymous at 9:16am -

I don't see how self-segregation could be considered to be racist in every case. Prejudiced possibly, but prejudice towards what and why are questions that need to be considered before jumping to conclusions.  

There are many reasons why people move to other parts of a community other than race. I bought a house and property out in the middle of no where. And I can honestly say that racism had nothing to do with me moving. I moved because I was tired of most everything that living in the city entailed. I choose to "self-segragate" myself away from everyone.

But what if I had moved to the outer edge of St. Joseph or Mahomet for the same reasons? Would I go from being a white guy who just wants to be away from the city to a racist?  I certainly hope not, otherwise my inter-racial married friends who moved to Homer for the same reasons are going to be in for a shock. 

 I don't mean to make light of a very serious issue, I'm just saying that most people who move out to the suburbs are not moving because they are racist or are trying to "self-segregate". They move for many reasons. And by labelling them racist creates a very uncomfortable attitude amongst people where there was none to begin with.


To Anonymous at 822am -  I

To Anonymous at 822am -

 I read the article you posted. Very interesting reading.  Although, I was a bit surprised by this line -

" Blacks were willing to pay $98 more per month to live in a neighborhood with more black households, while whites were willing to pay more to have fewer black neighbors. "

Ths is a very biased and, well, nasty comment in my opinion. Comments like these can be used to create an air of racism where there really is not any to be found. You could turn this around to say that blacks were willing to pay more to be in a neighboorhood with fewer white neighboors. 

 The aticle was well done for a bit piece until the writter threw the afore mentioned line in. Then it appeared more like a hit piece to me.

Just a thought....others might see it differently....



"move into a sundown town ready to make change if you are black"

Hey that sounds like a great idea let's go to a kkk meeting and hand out Martin Luther King speeches next

some inaccurate info here...

My dad grew up in Villa Grove during the 1950s, and I asked him about the siren.  He remembered the siren, and said it had nothing to do with telling African-Americans to leave town.  He said it was just to announce that it was time to go home for dinner, just like the noon whistle that still sounds in some towns.  I asked him why people would need to be told to go home for dinner, and all he said was, "There were a lot of dim-witted people in that town."  He did not deny that Villa Grove was a "sundown town."  He said that whenever any black people came into the village, the town cop would approach them and say, "You better not be here when the sun goes down, because i can't protect you from what might happen then."  However, that is NOT what the whistle was for.  As my dad pointed out, the sun doesn't always set at 6 pm.  In winter, the sun sets long before then.  If the whistle were there to tell black people to leave town, it would have gone off at sunset, not consistently at 6 o'clock. 

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