Ryan's Reviews > Sundown Towns: The Hidden History of American Racism

Sundown Towns by James W. Loewen
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Feb 18, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, psychology, philosophy-history, owned-books

** spoiler alert ** My notes and quotes:

But Democrats couldn’t make too much of that fact, especially in 1948, because their own candidate, Harry Truman, also grew up in a sundown town, Lamar, Missouri. Report Morris Milgram pointed out that Lamar “was a Jim Crow town of 3,000, without a single Negro family. When I had spoken about this with leading citizens of Lamar . . . they told me, all using the word ‘n----r,’ that colored people weren’t wanted in Lamar.” (p. 13).

A fine history by Jean Swaim of Cedar County, Missouri, provides a detailed example of the process that took place in many of the counties summarized in Table 1 of the previous chapter. Cedar County is located between Kansas City and Springfield, Missouri. African Americans had lived in the county since before the Civil War, originally as slaves. In the 1870s, a black community grew up within Stockton, the county seat, including a school, candy store, and “a park with a popular croquet court, where white Stockton men often spent their Sunday afternoons competing in tournaments.” Some African Americans worked as domestic help, others at a local brickyard. By 1875, whites and blacks had organized the Stockton Colored School, which eventually had as many as 43 students. A newspaper account from August 1899 shows interracial cooperation: “About 1,500 attended colored people’s picnic here. Order was good except for a few drunken whites. Stockton won the ball game from Greenfield, 20-1. Greenfield’s colored band was a big attraction.” African Americans also lived elsewhere in the county, including “Little Africa” near Humansville in the northeastern corner. Forty families lived there, with a church, school, and store. They held an annual picnic on the Fourth of July to which whites were invited and had a baseball team with a white coach.
Then something bad happened, something that the local histories don’t identify and that has been lost even to oral history. As another local historian born in the county in the 1920s, put it, “It’s just a dark history that nobody talks about,” speaking of the event or chain of events that ended Cedar County’s racial harmony. Around 1900, the county’s black population declined precipitously, from 127 (in 1890) to 45. Whatever prompted the initial decline, we do know why it continued: Cedar County was becoming a sundown county. By 1910, only thirteen African Americans lived in the county, and by 1930, just one. Swaim refers to “many shameful incidents” in which “visiting ball teams, travelers, and even laborers were . . . told to be out of town by night. Blacks could find haven in Greenfield,” the seat of the next county to the south. She tells of a black bricklayer whose work attracted admiring crowds: “Not only was he paving El Dorado Springs’s Main Street in perfect herringbone pattern as fast as an assistant could toss him bricks, but he sang as he worked and moved in rhythm to his song.” Nevertheless, he “had to find a place out of town at night.” “In Stockton, prejudice was still rampant in the late 1960s,” Swaim continues, “as black workmen constructing the Stockton Dam were provided segregated and inferior housing west of town. Their visiting wives cooked for them.” Is Cedar County still sundown today? Swaim writes, “In the 1990s few blacks are seen in Cedar County.” But the 2000 census counted 44 African Americans. One black couple lives in El Dorado Springs and seems to get along all right. Nevertheless, Cedar County in 2005 has yet to reach the level of black population and interracial cooperation that it showed in the 1890s. (p. 91).

A series of at least six race riots in the Ozarks, along with smaller undocumented expulsions, led to the almost total whiteness of most Ozark counties, which continues to this day. In 1894, Monett, Missouri, started the chain of racial violence. As happened so often, it began with a lynching. Ulysses Hayden, an African American, was taken from police custody and hanged from a telephone pole, although Murray Bishoff, an authority on Monett, believes him innocent of the murder of the young white man for which he was hanged. After the lynching, whites forced all African Americans to leave Monett. Pierce City, just six miles west, followed suit in 1901. Again, a crime of violence had been perpetrated upon a white person, and again, after lynching the alleged perpetrator, the mob then turned on the black community, about 10% of the town’s population, and drove them out. In the process, members of the mob set fire to several homes, incinerating at least two African Americans inside. Portfolio 3 shows one of the destroyed residences. Some African Americans fled to Joplin, the nearest city, but in 1903 whites rioted there. Three years later, whites in Harrison, Arkansas, expelled most of their African Americans, and in 1909, they finished the job. In 1906, whites in Springfield, Missouri, staged a triple lynching they called an “Easter Offering.”
No one was ever convicted in any of these riots, which sent a message that violence against African Americans would not be punished in the Ozarks. On the contrary, it was celebrated. In Springfield, for example,
souvenir hunters sifted through the smoldering ashes looking for bits of bone, charred flesh, and buttons to carry away with them in order to commemorate the event. Local drugstores and soda parlors sold postcards containing photographs of the lynching, and one enterprising businessman . . . [had] medals struck commemorating the lynching. One side of the medal read “Easter Offering,” and the other side, “Souvenir of the hanging of 3 niggers, Springfield, Missouri, April 15, 1906.” (p. 95-96).

Besides Pana and Virden, many other communities trace their origins as sundown towns to a successful strike. Something darker may have happened in Mindenmines, Missouri, where mine operators brought African American strikebreakers to their coal mine in about 1900. Marvin Van Gilder, author of a 1972 history of Barton County, recounts blandly, “Many of them died during their relatively brief residence at the mining camps . . . and a cemetery for the Negro community was established northwest of Mindenmines near the state line.” Van gilder does not explain why or how “many of them died,” but Mindenmines became a sundown town upon their demise and probably remains so to this day. According to a staff member at Missouri Southern State College who grew up in the town, a black family moved in for a week in about 1987 and left under pressure; another lived there for about six weeks in about 1990 and left after someone fired a gun at their home. In 2000, Mindenmines was still all-white. (p. 161).

Some towns went sundown simply because a neighboring town did so. The neighboring event served as a catalyst of sorts, but actually it shows the absence of a catalyst. The only cause required to set off an expulsion seemed to be envy of a neighboring town that had already driven out its African Americans. In southwestern Missouri, for instance, newspaper editor Murray Bishoff believes that Monett’s prosperity after it threw out all its African Americans in 1894 likely contributed to Pierce City’s copycat riot seven years later. Bishoff thinks Pierce City in turn became a model for other nearby towns in Missouri and Arkansas. (p. 181).

The same thing happened in Tulsa. During that city’s now-notorious 1921 race riot, whites attacked Tulsa’s African American community on the ground and from the air: six airplanes dropped dynamite bombs to flatten homes and businesses. As Portfolio 10 shows, rioters made a concerted attempt to drive all African Americans out of Tulsa. Although they failed, they did pull off the largest race riot in American history. Later, the newspapers for the period mysteriously (and now famously) disappeared. The riot became, said one resident, “something everybody knew about but nobody wanted to discuss.” (p. 203).

“Keep moving” was the refrain, no matter why African Americans stopped. Local historian Jean Swaim tells of a shameful incident in Cedar County, Missouri: “Even a busload of black choir members who saved the lives of four El Dorado Springs teenagers by pulling them from a burning car were then turned away.” (p. 233).

Even when audiences loved their performances, musicians and athletes faced the problem of where to spend the night. This difficulty repeatedly beset barnstorming black baseball teams and the two famous black basketball teams, the Harlem Globetrotters and the Harlem Magicians, whenever they played in sundown towns. The town baseball team of El Dorado Springs, a sundown town in western Missouri, invited a black Kansas City team to play them, but the guests were then denied food and lodging. One man made an accommodation: Dr. L.T. Dunaway locked the team in his second-floor office “and some citizens took food to them,” according to local historian Jean Swaim. African American workers paving the U.S. 54 through El Dorado Springs in the 1940s “also had to spend their nights locked in that office.” Swaim does not say whether they were locked in to prevent them from being at large in the town after sundown or to preclude violence against them by local white residents for that offense. (p. 246-247).

In an all-night riot in August, 1901, white residents of Pierce City, Missouri, hanged a young black man alleged to have murdered a white woman, killed his grandfather, looted the armory, and used its Springfield rifles to attack the black community. African Americans fired back but were outgunned. The mob then burned several homes including this one (pictured above), Emma Carter’s, incinerating at least two African Americans inside. At 2 A.M., Pierce City’s 200 black residents ran for their lives. They found no refuge in the nearest town, Monett, because in 1894 it had expelled its blacks in a similar frenzy and hung a sign, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down.” (p. 276).

Abraham Lincoln understood the threat to our democracy posed by anti-black prejudice and likelihood that this sentiment would metastasize to attack other groups. In 1855 he wrote a letter to his lifelong friend Josh Speed, a clause of which has become famous:
As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except Negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russian, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. (p. 332).

An elderly African American woman living in central Missouri avoids the entire southwestern corner of the state. She is very aware that after whites in Springfield, the prime city of the Ozark Mountains, lynched three African Americans on Easter Sunday, 1906, “all the blacks left out of that area,” as she put it. Neosho, Stockton, Warsaw, Bolivar, and other Ozark towns are almost devoid of African Americans, who fled the entire region, she said; even today, those are “not places where I would feel comfortable going.” (p. 344).

Independent sundown towns also hurt their own futures by being closed to new ideas. . . . There are exceptions, some sundown towns do better than others. Murray Bishoff, who lives in Pierce City, Missouri, and works in nearby Monett, thinks Pierce City, which drove out its African Americans in 1901 and has been sundown ever since, has been hurt by its sundown policy. Meanwhile, Monett, which drove out its blacks in 1894 and has been equally white since, is doing better. In 1999, Monett’s per capita income was nearly 40% higher than Pierce City’s, although still below average for the state. (p. 361).

Surely the white-flight prize goes to those who flee Joplin, Missouri. A librarian in the Joplin Public Library told of her neighbor who moved from Joplin to Webb City around 1985, because “his daughter was about to enter the seventh grade and he didn’t want her to go to school with blacks at that age.” The librarian stayed in touch during the relocation process and reported:
“At one point [the mother] told me she had found the perfect house for their family, only it was on the wrong side of the street. The line between Joplin and Webb City was that street, and the house she liked was on the Joplin side, so she couldn’t consider it. Eventually they found a house in Webb City.”
Webb City adjoins Joplin, as the story implies, but the move amazes because Joplin itself was just 2% black. Webb City, on the other hand, has just 1 African American among its 7,500 residents, and that person was not of school age. (p. 389).

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Sundown Towns.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.