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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:
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.
7pm - Writing History in Stone - Historical markers, monuments, and museums that are afraid to tell the truth about the past.
7pm – How Standardized Tests Like the SAT, ACT, and GRE Lie About Your Abilities