"Sundown Towns" In American History

"When Signs Read 'Get Out'"

It's a really interesting article, methinks.

Loewen's book has been favorably reviewed in several newspapers, including this one, but some historians say that he has taken his argument beyond the scope of his evidence.

"Those who are skeptical of Loewen's argument will find plenty of gaps in his research," Thomas J. Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania professor of history and sociology, writes in the liberal magazine the Nation. "Some of his most provocative assertions rest on tiny shards of evidence; in particular, he relies on oral histories and e-mails from residents of sundown towns, making it difficult to differentiate rumor from fact."

Another skeptic is Andrew Wiese, a history professor at San Diego State University whose book on blacks in suburbia, "Places of Their Own," was cited in "Sundown Towns."

"One thing that concerns me is the definition of sundown town, which is a little slippery and shifty," says Wiese. "It conflates places that practiced housing discrimination with places that forcibly kept blacks out after dark.

"What is a sundown town? It's a place that forcibly kept blacks out after dark. But that's different than a place like Scarsdale, New York, where black people could not buy a house but where many lived as gardeners and domestics and were not forced out after dark."

Loewen responds: "I don't think there's a big difference. I think many places where blacks could not buy a house were also places where blacks wouldn't be safe after dark. . . . I think suburbs tended to have a little more finesse [in their racism] but I'm not going to back off."

This last little bit cracks me up.

It happened during World War II, when Aptheker, a white Jewish Communist from New York, commanded a group of black solders stationed at an Army base near Pollock, La., a town with a nasty sundown sign.

As part of their training, the soldiers were required to complete a 25-mile march. Aptheker and a black sergeant decided to march through Pollock -- at midnight.

"It was all arranged by the men," Aptheker recalled. "As we approached Pollock around midnight . . . we all began singing 'John Brown's Body' at the top of our voices -- a hundred black men with rifles and one crazy white man in front with a pistol."

I remember hearing stories of this, but I've never actually seen it.