No Sunset on Housing History
Edina, Minn. is one of the few suburbs I could see myself living in. It has decent public transportation, boutique storefronts, independent restaurants—and for an extra dose of kitsch—the first indoor shopping mall in America. It’s one of those old-growth ‘burbs, where the houses have character and the streets have sidewalks.
Alas, it also has a dark past. Though it’s one of the few places where I could see myself living outside a city, it’s also one of the many places where certain people couldn’t see themselves living at all. It’s a sundown town.
Sundown towns are places where founders, law enforcement officials, and residents used a combination of violence, coercion, and unconstitutional ordinances to exclude black people (and sometimes other minorities). In Edina, they employed restrictive covenants stating that “no lot shall ever be sold, conveyed, leased, or rented to any person other than one of the white or Caucasian race,” an illegal statement that was still on the books into the 1970s.
I grew up in a neighborhood everyone called called “Nordeast” in nearby Minneapolis, where a white kid like me was happily in the minority. Later, attending high school in a Twin Cities suburb and college in Boulder, Colo., I was struck by how white the populations were, but I never questioned why. I just accepted the dominant paradigm that cities were naturally diverse, and suburbs and towns were not. But my assumption—while a common one—was incorrect. As James W. Loewen demonstrates in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (Simon & Schuster, 2006), white places are almost always homogenous on purpose.
Perhaps most chilling were the signs. The reason these towns and suburbs were known as “sundown” was because black people (and sometimes Jews, Chinese, and Mexicans, among others) were forbidden from even being present in them after dark. At the city limits, signs were often posted to tell these supposed interlopers that they shouldn’t let the sun go down on them in the town, or else. Loewen has confirmed some 184 towns in 32 states as having displayed sundown signs, but this wasn’t the only way of reinforcing white-only population centers. Often police officers were expected to pass along the message at the train station, or to pull over cars containing black people to ensure they knew what might happen if they hung around. Certain towns would even sound special sirens each night telling black people it was time to leave, with at least one continuing the tradition into the late 1990s.
These practices were disturbingly widespread from the 1890s through the 1970s; I highly recommend you look up the history of sundown towns in your state using Loewen’s database. While the abhorrent signs are long gone, many towns and suburbs remain mostly white because the mentality of segregation persists. “Residents in some Midwestern towns think their sundown ordinances are still in effect,” Loewen writes. Vestiges quietly survive in the names of towns, where founders and developers used words to subtly telegraph disinviting words to African Americans on the signs denoting their city limits. Sometimes it was obvious, such as employing the term “White,” as in Whitefish Bay, Wis.; Indiana used any color in town and county names to indicate its exclusive nature. Other times it was less so; Loewen writes that “In Florida… any town or city with the word ‘Palm’ in its name was thought to be especially likely to keep out African Americans.”
The most shocking thing about Loewen’s book is how much of this history has been papered over so that people like me can go on with their lives as if it never happened. Loewen exposes false narratives about black people living exclusively in urban areas, showing that between the end of slavery and 1890, they lived in pretty much all areas of the country until they were forcibly removed. He uses Census data to demonstrate how the story we tell ourselves about the Great Migration (when southern blacks moved into cities in the north in the nineteen-teens) masks the cruelty of a separate occurrence, what Loewen calls the Great Retreat, some 25 years prior. It unfolded in different ways and under different pretenses depending on the town, but in general the Great Retreat looked like this: Some incident sparked racial tensions, and then white residents rioted, burned blacks people’s houses to the ground, and chased established populations of their neighbors away with deadly violence.
It’s more likely than not that a town or suburb you love has a hidden history of segregation, even if you’ve never heard it. “In many states outside the south, a majority of all towns can probably be defined as sundown in 1968,” writes Loewen (emphasis mine). He adds that any community founded by a single developer between 1890 and 1960 “kept out African Americans from its beginnings.” Many of them used their all-white status in ads, listing “No Negroes” aside amenities such as “Beautiful Scenery” and “Pretty Homes.” And even we city-dwellers can’t avoid this history, because in urban areas, officials simply sundowned neighborhoods and made black residents return to their prescribed areas before dark. The only place where sundown towns are scarce is in the traditional south, where the labor of black slaves and later sharecroppers was too valuable and commonplace to expel from white communities.
Loewen also details how this history affects our communities today and will continue to do so in the future. The book is an important read particularly for real estate professionals because of one word in the title: hidden. It’s part of the larger reason why we’re commemorating the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act in the first place: So many of us are unaware of how housing discrimination has shaped the development of our communities. I’d never heard of sundown towns until I picked up this book, but this is more than a vocabulary lesson. This book flies in the face of the narrative I (and most other Americans) accept about the layout of our towns, suburbs, and cities. And ignorance of the law—even if it’s a web of unconstitutional, outmoded local ordinances that never should have existed in the first place—is no excuse. This is American history everyone should know, especially those in the real estate industry.
The 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act
This review is part of Books in Brief: Lighting the Path to Housing Equality, the Weekly Book Scan’s series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. Learn more about how fair housing makes us stronger at fairhousing.realtor.