Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sundown Towns

I am rather desperate to post something not relating to Ferguson at this point, but I don't think it's really safe to do so yet. Not for now.

So what I want to do today is go back to something I wrote way back in the halcyon days of 2010, when nickels were only a quarter each and fruit was so plentiful that it practically grew on trees. My post from October 15 of that year focused on the difficulty of travel for blacks in the earlier parts of the 20th century, and making note of a special book called the Green Book, passed around between black travelers noting safe places for them to go. This would be while those of us who are white were appearing in videos about how flying on an airplane was like this:

...yeah. Count how many parts of that video are never ever going to happen on your next flight. Here's a hint: just about all the parts.

But I also brought up, briefly, why a Green Book had to be passed around: because of the existence of 'sundown towns'. Rachel Maddow talked about them last week, and James Loewen (he of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, if you've ever read either of those) wrote a book about it. What 'sundown' meant was, if you were of the wrong race, and you were in town after sundown, you were liable to have anything happen to you up to and including your death. In some cases cities made the threat implicit and made life extremely uncomfortable for anyone of the wrong race who lived there anyway, through such methods as denying housing, making housing inordinately expensive, denying basic utilities, even denying police protection, until that person got the message and cleared out. Others went so far as to put up a billboard and straight-up assaulted and killed anyone they saw after dark. Some of these towns still engage in minority-unfriendly behavior to this day, although now it's more subtle.

Blacks weren't always the targeted race. Sometimes it was Hispanics, sometimes it was Asians (particularly in California gold country), sometimes it was Jews, sometimes it was just everybody that wasn't white. But blacks were far more often than not the target.

Where was this happening? All over the country. In my original 2010 post, I linked to a site showing a database of possible sundown towns. It's still active, and yes, Ferguson is in the database, listed with an asterisk denoting "Not a suspected sundown town but of interest for other reasons". Every state in the lower 48 is involved in some way. Many of the towns shown include evidence both hard and anecdotal, and if you have any stories of your own, you're encouraged to contribute. Even Watertown is in the database; although there is no hard evidence of sundown behavior, the census shows not a single black resident as late as 1940 (population 11,301), and only a single black as late as 1970 (population 15,683).

Wisconsin has a lot of entries, really. Loewen's main finding was that it wasn't just by coincidence that the Midwest (including his home state of Illinois) is heavily white; it was very often made that way on purpose. Even if a town wasn't actively excluding, it still could get into the realm of people just simply never having seen a black person before. Green Bay is in the database, with anecdotes revolving around- what else- the Packers, and either their being fairly late to the party in integrating the club or an assumption that anyone black must be involved with the team somehow because, well, why else would blacks be in Green Bay?

And don't think Green Bay is the only large-ish city in the database. Seattle has hard and documented evidence excluding Asians and Native Americans in the 1800's. San Jose had an anti-Chinese convention in 1886 and burned down their Chinatown the next year (none exists today). New York, Chicago and Salt Lake City get the 'other reasons' asterisk as it wasn't so much the cities as a whole but certain blocks and neighborhoods within them that had their problems.

Maddow brought this up because not only has the bulk of the violence in Ferguson- of which there hasn't been any today, thank goodness- and all the major police action occurred after dark, but there was an request by police to wrap up protesting for the day before dark. (That did not happen, and of course, things got violent.)

This is a thing we need to keep in mind as we, eventually, move forward from this, and work to root out where it still occurs. Sometimes, simply existing as a certain race in certain towns can be hazardous to your qualify of life, sometimes even your lifespan. Even today, even if it's not made explicit, hints can be routinely dropped.

Even if your race happens to be the majority in that town.

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