'Sundown towns': Midwest confronts its complicated racial legacy

Towns like Utica, Ohio, and Goshen, Ind., are beginning to come to terms with a legacy of racism that has largely evaded history books. These 'sundown towns' were places where, black Americans knew, they were not welcome once the sun went down.

Jack Shuler
Chris Cooper pulled his son out of Utica, Ohio, schools and sent him to a more racially diverse school in a larger town after letters threatening violence over interracial dating were sent to the high school. Historians says Utica is a former 'sundown town,' where African-Americans were not welcome after dark.

On Election Day, when Chris Cooper walked into his usual precinct to vote, a greeter asked him, “Do you live in this town?”

The question was perhaps innocent. After all, there aren’t many people around town who look like Mr. Cooper, who is African-American. According to the 2010 United States Census, 97 percent of Utica, Ohio, identifies as white.

Yet beneath the comment was an ocean of history – raw and long overlooked.

The racial journey of the South is well known, and at a time of heightened racial tensions nationwide, that past has again become present.

But less known are the stories of Utica, and Goshen, Ind., and other small towns across the Midwest, where whiteness has been a feature of life for so long that most no longer realize it was not always that way. These towns are only now beginning to come to terms with a legacy of racism that has largely evaded history books.

These are the stories of “sundown towns” – towns where, black Americans knew, they were not welcome once the sun went down. In some cases, such as Goshen, town brochures boasted of “no negro population” as recently as 1955. In others, such as Pierce City, Mo., the first African-American didn’t graduate from high school until 2003, according to a local historian.

In sundown towns across the Midwest, black Americans were denied housing, persecuted, or violently evicted during a period from the 1890s to the 1940s, leaving a homogeneity that has defined the towns for much of the past century. As the stories of the past have slowly come to light, towns have struggled with how to respond; only one has gone so far as to pass a city council resolution acknowledging and condemning what happened – a document that required 31 drafts.

But, in many ways, the past remains present here, too. Research by a University of Kansas professor suggests that former sundown towns played a decisive role in tilting the state of Wisconsin to Donald Trump. More broadly, historians say that sundown towns have left a distorted sense of racial awareness across swaths of the rural Midwest, in which white people do not see the lack of people of color as a problem, while African Americans say race rules their lives – shaping how they travel and where they live. 

“For white people [race is] operating, but at a level that they don’t know how to consciously articulate it to themselves,” says Clarissa Rile Hayward, author of “How Americans Make Race.”

For Cooper, words are much easier to find.

“Everybody wants that island where they can be left alone. No you don’t. No you don’t. ’Cause I’m on that island. I feel like Tom Hanks and all I got is my volleyball.”

The very concept of sundown towns is debated. The historian who has looked deepest into the phenomenon, James Loewen, contends that there were once thousands stretching from coast to coast. Critics of his work say he relies too much on oral history. For example, historians in Murray, Utah – named as a sundown town by Mr. Loewen – point to ample evidence of prejudice but no sign that the town systematically forced out black residents. Loewen counters that written documents don’t give a full picture.

“It’s hard to find ordinances in small towns – I challenge you to find an original double-parking ordinance,” he says.

•  •  •

One way to frame the sundown definition is that a sundown town was a place where black people knew they were not welcome. Researchers working with Loewen uncovered oral histories that made it clear that African-Americans knew it was not a good idea to drive there.

Utica has a complicated racial history, often diffused by the mist of memory. On one hand, it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. On the other, locals remember the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on a hill just outside of town in the 1920s.

By the 1960s, the author of “A Sesquicentennial History of Utica, Licking County, Ohio, 1810-1960,” noted that “some time in the dim past,” there was a black barber and several black servants in Utica.

Some locals claim there once was a sign on either end of town warning black people to leave by sundown. A local historian who curates the town’s museum says there was no sign but claims there was a town ordinance that stated as much – though she could not produce the actual document.

In many ways, the legacy of that past lingers.

In September 2015, letters were sent to Utica High School and the school district office threatening violence because of interracial dating. The letters had images of the Confederate battle flag. The community and the schools condemned the letters and launched a campaign called “Utica United”; the homecoming football game and dance were canceled.

Chris Cooper took the threat personally. The letters were targeting black people. “And there’s only so many adult black men in town – me and my friend Robert, as far as I can tell.”

After the letters, Cooper pulled his son out of the Utica schools and sent him to a more racially diverse school in Newark, a larger town down the road.

Most people in town who know him are kind to him, Cooper says. He is friends with a few of his neighbors, is involved with a local service club, and has coached peewee football. But one time when he was coaching football someone said to another guy within earshot, “Are you coming to the Klan meeting tonight.”

He wasn’t sure if they were joking or not. So he limits his public profile, doesn’t belong to a church, and won’t frequent any local stores or bars or restaurants.

But he’s not moving. “My daddy always told me don’t let anyone take you off your block. This is my block.”

In researching “How Americans Make Race,” Professor Hayward focused on Columbus, Ohio, and its suburbs. When she conducted research in white communities, few white people would talk about race.

“They’d say it wasn’t important, that it had little to do with their life or their town,” she says.

But when she interviewed people in mostly black neighborhoods, race was a central concern for them. One man she interviewed said, “Everywhere I go, I’m unexpected.”

•  •  •

It was 2013, when Dan Shenk of Goshen, Ind., came across a community promotional booklet published in 1936 or 1937. In a section titled “For the Public Health and Safety,” the booklet states, “Contributing in a large measure to the absence of crime is the character of the population of Goshen. Nationalities are 97.5% native born white, and 2.5% foreign born white. There is no negro population.”

He had been looking into Goshen’s racial past for a few months, and what he was finding was unsettling. Though there never was a “sundown” sign on the edge of town, Census records indicate that in 1890 there were 21 black people. By 1910, there were only two. Twenty years later, there were three.

One covenant for a Goshen housing development in 1946 read: “No person of any other race but the white race shall occupy any building or any lot.” As recently as 1996, there was a Klan rally in the town.

So Mr. Shenk wrote about that history in an article for the Mennonite World Review. (Goshen, a town of 32,000, is home to 93 churches – 27 of which are Mennonite or Brethren – as well as Goshen College, a Mennonite liberal arts college.)

Upon reading the article, a neighbor asked him, “Now that we know all of this happened, what’s Goshen going to do about it?”

The answer was a resolution admitting that this was a part of the town’s history. Goshen remains the only sundown town to pass such a resolution.

When Shenk emailed the mayor, proposing the resolution, the mayor’s response was that it could open some old wounds but that it would be worth pursuing. Shenk also approached Lee Roy Berry Jr., a retired professor and a practicing attorney in Goshen, who is African-American and had experienced racism firsthand.

In Goshen, Mr. Berry says, “There was an assumption of criminality.” He remembers the time a cop trailed him as he drove home from visiting the building site for his new house. Berry has now lived in that house for 43 years.

The document Berry and Shenk produced went through 31 drafts with input from a wide spectrum of the community. After listing the wrongs of the past, the resolution concludes with a kind of mantra, “It happened. It was wrong. Today’s a new day.” Goshen’s City Council passed the resolution on March 17, 2015.

Shenk says it was like drawing a line in the sand for the community. Berry is a bit more measured. He thinks the resolution just begins to address a complex history.

But Berry says he was also overjoyed. “It was a rare moment in our polity where people heard one another and they did a remarkable thing.”

For Robert Hunt, an African-American pastor from nearby Elkhart who remembers being told by his parents not to get caught in Goshen after dark, the resolution shows how much Goshen has changed. But, he says, “It was not an apology and I was a little hurt that it wasn’t. If I do something that’s offensive to someone and hurt their feelings, then I need to tell that person I’m sorry.”

Former Mayor Allan Kauffman doesn’t think the resolution would have passed if it had been a direct apology. Some people said they aren’t responsible for the past, he says. “So it needed to be worded in a way that it wasn’t an apology but it was an acknowledgment that it happened. It happened. It shouldn’t have happened. And it will never happen again.”

•  •  •

Getting other towns to take the steps Goshen did can be hard. Susan Glisson has worked for more than 20 years to promote more open conversations about the history of racism in America, first with the William Winter Institute at the University of Mississippi and now as a consultant for Sustainable Equity.

At one team-building workshop for an undisclosed company, a participant was confused that a woman from Mississippi was running a workshop in the Midwest. “You all have the problem,” the participant told Ms. Glisson, referencing the South. “We don’t.”

So Glisson shared the history of sundown towns in the Midwest. Until that moment, they had never heard the term or the history.

In towns like Pierce City, Mo., that history was rarely talked about.

When local journalist Murray Bishoff first discovered and wrote about three mob-fueled lynchings in 1901 – an event that inspired Mark Twain to write his essay, “The United States of Lyncherdom” – some people reproached him for “bringing it up again.”

But Mr. Bishoff didn’t believe the incident had ever really gone away. Once a diverse town of 10 percent African-Americans, Pierce City changed. “After this violence the area remained largely white for years,” Bishoff says. “The hostility, the notoriety, it was known for that for decades.”

Ten years after his article came out, Bishoff designed a marker to honor the three people killed – a circular stone with the names of the dead and the phrase “May community be restored.” Bishoff and his wife stand vigil at the stone every year on the anniversary of the lynching. Sometimes, they are alone, but more often than not, he says, there are others who also wish to honor the dead.

In 2005, then-Mayor Mark Peters, issued a proclamation asking Pierce City to remember the crimes of 1901 and to “make every effort to show through our good will that we are manifestly not hostile and unrepentant, but friendly and welcoming instead.”

Bishoff believes that declaration underscores of the changes in the community, but he says there’s still work to do.

“Suspicion is easy to develop and hard to dispel.”

Getting communities to learn and address the past is difficult, but vital, says Glisson.

“Some real damage was done. There’s always the rush to move forward without engaging with the damage from the past. We’ve been good at that for 400 years.”

The answer is in building trust, she adds.

“You have to get people to trust each other to have a difficult conversation. It begins with self-reflection about who we are and the values we hold. And then we begin with historical facts that we’ve inherited. And saying that nobody alive invented racism,” she says. “It’s easier to hear the truth when it’s someone you have a relationship with rather than someone you don’t.”

She says it takes practice and “learning how to build the muscle memory of respectful dialogue. Nothing’s going to replace that.”

[Editor's note: Former Goshen, Ind., Mayor Allan Kauffmann's name has been corrected as has the most recent date of a Klan rally in the town.]

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