What People Who Live in Mostly White Towns Need to Know About History

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Last week, we hosted an online discussion many of you may have joined about the Black Lives Matter movements in small towns, and specifically in Anna, Illinois, a sundown town I’ve reported on. We talked with Jessica Moore and Takiyah Coleman, two organizers of the first Black Lives Matter protest in Anna, as well as James Loewen, a sociologist and author of the book “Sundown Towns.”

We received many more questions from our audience (of more than 500 people!) than we had time to answer, so I will be answering some more of them here. For a recording of the event conversation, check out the video on YouTube.

Watch the Online Discussion

I’ve lightly edited a few of the questions for clarity.

Many of the landmarks in Anna and other towns focus on the architecture, history or events of white people. Do you see it as a priority to recognize that these were places of exclusion? How can [people] help to elevate places/stories of people of color?

— Frank

Yes, as I’ve reported in Anna, I’ve been aware of how the town, like many others, chooses to commemorate its history. As a sundown town, Anna’s history has been told by white people. In my first story about the town, I wrote about how the neighboring community of Jonesboro, which shares a border with Anna, was home to the third Lincoln-Douglas debate. There are plaques and statues at the location of this important event, but what’s striking is what that material does — and doesn’t — say. The signage commemorates the fact that the debate happened but not what was said and why. Many mainstream (white) newspapers of the time wrote about this debate as a loss for Lincoln, who had very little support in Anna and Jonesboro during his 1858 U.S. Senate campaign. However, one would not know this from reading the signage and markers about the debate.

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Similarly, the Union County Historical Society and Museum has not exhibited any material based on the county’s history of exclusion, though museum officials told me they are aware of that history and sometimes get asked about it.

To your question: Yes. Many sundown towns have been afforded the privilege to tell their own stories about themselves, and this story is often told across the landscape, in addition to within local institutions such as museums and schools. Of note in Anna, though, are signs placed recently near the city limits in honor of a young Black man and former Anna-Jonesboro high school student who won the state’s 2018 wrestling championship in his weight class. However, the efforts of ordinary people to change how a place tells the story about itself matters. To elevate stories of people of color in mostly white places with histories of racial exclusion, I think it’s important for white people to follow the lead of people of color. Perhaps also talking with directors of local history museums and societies, as well as local librarians and educators, is a good place to start.

I grew up in Watseka, Illinois, in the 1960s-’70s, a rural town of similar size and demographics [to Anna]. Without exposure to African Americans living in our town, we adopted explicit racist attitudes from reading Chicago newspapers. While small towns should reflect on racist policies that have excluded and harmed African Americans, how can residents of small towns help to address structural racism that exists in both small and large communities with larger populations of African Americans?

— Kris

I do not know whether Watseka can be considered a sundown town, but from my perspective, questioning the reasons why any town or city looks the way it does is important. The vast majority of Watseka is white, according to the U.S. census. You can ask your parents, relatives, neighbors, etc. what drew them to the area. To your question about addressing structural racism in a small town such as Watseka, you could take note of who has power in the community: business owners, members of the City Council, county board, school board and police district, to start. Are they all white? What policies and practices have they adopted in relation to zoning, hiring and recruitment, housing and more?

Structural racism is kept intact in part because of a desire to keep outsiders — people of color — out. Individuals like you can begin to poke holes in the perceived value of living in a homogenous community.

I’m a reporter in New Hampshire thinking about whether to try to tell a story about the state’s racist history — a story that would puncture white myths about how welcoming New England is. But I’m worried that’s a story made for a white audience, in that it will be obvious to BIPOC that New Hampshire isn’t always welcoming. Should that stop me from pursuing the story? Is there a better framing I should use?

— Jason

No! It should absolutely not stop you from pursuing the story. I believe it should actually motivate you to pursue the story. The specificity of the audience when writing and reporting about sundown towns is important. Chances are, as you point out, people of color in your state already know about this but perhaps white people don’t. That is the challenge: to demystify and explicitly point out the highly racialized (white) environment many communities exist in, even if white individuals do not perceive race as a current or pressing issue. Keep going!

Some tips for anyone interested in researching sundown towns: Look through online collections of archived newspapers. Try the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection. Look through historic census data to see when and whether the community had a non-white population at one point in time, and then perhaps did not years later. Loewen has compiled some of that information on his sundown towns website (click on the map database). I’d also suggest contacting local historians, researchers and even genealogists who may be able and interested in helping you with research.

What can be done to help? Can state reps be pressured to address these towns? Are there businesses with corporate offices that can be contacted and forced to make changes?

— Mary

As Loewen pointed out during the event, only a few sundown towns in the country have formally acknowledged their pasts, including Goshen, Indiana, and La Crosse, Wisconsin. Every town is different, of course, which may require different paths. But citizens like you can make change. Here is one route Loewen suggests:

I think every sundown town in America needs to take three steps. First, they need to admit it: “Yes, we did this.” … Second of all: “We did this and it was wrong. And we’re sorry.” In other words, apologize. And third, “We don’t do it anymore.” And that needs some actual steps like, we are hiring black teachers. We are hiring black policemen, like garbage collectors, and we’re trying to house them in Anna-Jonesboro or in Kenilworth, or whatever sundown town we’re talking about. And once you’ve taken those three steps, then you are no longer a sundown town. Then, you’ve made some real progress.

Thank you again for showing up to the event. I hope we keep this conversation going. As always, if you have questions about sundown towns, please write to me at [email protected].

Until next week,

Logan Jaffe
ProPublica Illinois