Driving to my former job as editor of the News-Progress in Sullivan, IL, one Tuesday morning in 2005, I heard Jim Loewen talking about a past that many central Illinois residents would prefer to forget.
Loewen, an Illinois native with a doctorate from Harvard, is the author of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” (W.W. Norton & Co.) and he was being interviewed on WILL Radio's morning show in Urbana.
|Art by SamiShain|
In his book, Loewen noted that up until the 1960s, many towns adopted policies designed to maintain all-white communities.
You've heard the old rural legend — this or that town had a sign that told blacks they'd better be gone by the time the sun set.
Well, it’s more than a legend.
"While African Americans never lost the right to vote in the North... they did lose the right to live in town after town, county after county," Loewen said.
In other words, blacks ended up concentrated in a Decatur or a Chicago not so much out of choice, but because when they tried to live elsewhere, they were cruelly driven out.
“Located mostly outside the traditional South, these towns employed legal formalities, race riots, policemen, bricks, fires and guns to produce homogeneously Caucasian communities,” Publishers Weekly said in its review of Loewen's book.
Loewen documented data on hundreds of such towns. Radio listeners heard such a tale from Arcola, IL. One woman recalled that when she was a child, a black family was told by the school district that their children's records had been “lost in the mails.”
The girl watched as the mother and her children approached a grocery store in the middle of the day, only to be confronted by a “closed” sign on the door. There they stood, perplexed and hungry, in a parking lot full of shoppers' cars.
Monticello had a particularly infamous reputation, Loewen said. And so, unfortunately, did my hometown of Effingham. Blacks there were permitted to travel only one narrow route — from the bus station to the train station and vice versa. I wasn't told any of this as a child, although I might have gotten a clue from the uniformly pale faces I saw while growing up there.
Interestingly, Mattoon, as a railroad town, had a better reputation than most for racial tolerance. But as many as 480 of the 650 Illinois towns Loewen investigated were “sundown towns,” formally or informally.
Naturally, I wanted to know about the towns in Moultrie County, so I contacted Loewen. He said he had no information on Bethany or Lovington “...except census statistics, which show them to be all-white for decade after decade, so I therefore suspect them as having been sundown towns but list them as unconfirmed.”
But Loewen had corresponded with residents of Sullivan, and was generous enough to share what he'd learned.
“I don't have any specific anecdotes on Sullivan, except to say that it was always just 'one of those things you knew' - blacks were not permitted there,” one person told him.
A former resident now living in London said, “I remember growing up in Sullivan where all outsiders were made to feel unwelcome. Sullivan was, and probably still is, a town with many small-minded people living in it.
"I love where I grew up, but yes, this unrealistic living situation had its implications when those of us who lived there grew up and moved away," the London dweller said.
“I remember being afraid of all the different people when I was 17 and a freshman at college. There were over 30,000 students representing a huge variety of people — this fact is what made my education complete. I now live in London, England, and have been fortunate enough to travel all over Europe and Africa. Americans in general are very small-minded when it comes to accepting differences in other people, or perhaps I notice this because I grew up in Sullivan."
Whatever Sullivan's sundown status, it ended in the early 1960s, thanks to one family's courage, according to a former resident.
“I hope that my response will not be taken as gospel, but I clearly remember the issue of blacks spending the night in Sullivan due to my association with The Little Theatre on the Square,” the person said.
“Such prohibitions were termed 'Sunset Laws' and did not allow blacks to stay in Sullivan in such a way that they would have to or be allowed to sleep there. I really doubt that such prohibitions were statute, as this prohibition was by-passed in approximately1963, although I am unsure as to the specific year.
“Guy S. Little, Jr. made a decision to have the musical 'Showboat' as one of the summer offerings at The Little Theatre. As such, one or two black principal Equity actors were part of the summer cast for the entire season, in addition to one or two black apprentices. Also, the role of the actor who sang 'Old Man River' was filled by a black professor from the U of I, Champaign.
“Casts were filled and rooms rented, and one man summarily turned his back on 'Sunset Laws.'”
"As an aside, I was so incredibly proud of the Little family and its decision to tum its back on the prejudices that had been formally or informally enforced in the town. I am further proud of the quiet courage and dignity that it took to achieve such an action quietly and effectively!"
By the Martin Luther King holiday 2014, we've come pretty far along the path of racial tolerance — far enough that we can no longer see, or sometimes even remember, the distant point where the journey began. And that's a problem, because we need to remember.
We need to remember in part because it's a useful corrective to our tendency toward fatuous ancestor worship. Our forebears didn't have all the answers, and they weren't any better than they should have been. And we also need to remember the racist past in order to avert a racist future.
After Hurricane Katrina and the election of President Obama, I heard some mutterings of gutter racism that surprised and saddened me. I am caught off-guard when something as primitively tribal and as viciously, blindly moronic as racism reemerges, blinking, into the light of modem civilization.
“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”
— Ralph W. Sackman