The Washington Post article,"Darkness at the Edge of Town," by Laura Wexler, author of "Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America." reviews James Loewen's book Sundown Towns. Laura Wexler writes: In Oct. 2001, James W. Loewen stopped at a convenience store in the small Illinois town of Anna -- a name that, as a store clerk confirmed, stands for "Ain't No Niggers Allowed."
On Nov. 8, 1909, nearly a century before Loewen stepped into the store, a mob of angry white citizens drove out Anna's 40 or so black families following the lynching in a nearby town of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Anna became all-white literally overnight, Loewen reports, and embraced racial exclusiveness for the long haul. According to the 2000 census, just one family with a black member lives among Anna's 7,000 residents.
Anna is far from unique, as Loewen, a sociologist, argues in his powerful and important new book, Sundown Towns . On the contrary, Loewen reports that -- beginning in roughly 1890 with the end of Reconstruction and continuing until the fair-housing legislation of the late 1960s -- whites in America created thousands of whites-only towns, commonly known as "sundown towns" owing to the signs often posted at their city limits that warned, as one did in Hawthorne, Calif., in the 1930s: "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne." In fact, Loewen claims that, during that 70-year period, outside the traditional South, "probably a majority of all incorporated places [in the United States] kept out African Americans."
Much has been written about the history of segregation within American cities, but this is the first full-length study of places that sought to exclude African Americans entirely. Loewen's desire to be exhaustive is therefore understandable. But in this case, exhaustive sometimes means exhausting. The book would have been more enjoyable to read had Loewen focused in depth on a few representative sundown towns, teasing out the history and sociology of the phenomenon in a more narrative, less textbook-like form.
That said, for its meticulous research and passionate chronicling of the complex and often shocking history of whites-only communities, Sundown Towns deserves to become an instant classic in the fields of American race relations, urban studies and cultural geography. After reading it, you'll view your own community, and the whole of the American landscape, more suspiciously -- and rightly so.Click here to watch on CSPAN TV
A Hidden Dimension of American Racism
By James W. Loewen
New Press. 562 pp. $29.95