September 13, 2021

James Loewen and the Sociology of Sundown Towns

Colby King author photoBy Colby King

Sociologist James Loewen passed away on Thursday, August 19 at the age of 79. In an obituary in the New York Times, he is described as a “civil rights champion who took high school teachers and textbook publishers to task for distorting American history, particularly the struggle of Black people in the South, by oversimplifying their experience and omitting the ugly parts.”

Loewen first worked as a professor at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi. He later worked at the University of Vermont, and as a visiting professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

Loewen is probably most famous for his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which my friend Myron Strong writes about here. Loewen produced other important work as well. For example, Facing South, the online magazine for the Institute for Southern Studies republished Loewen’s article “Lies Across the South” from the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of Southern Exposure in an effort, “to deepen understanding of the long movement for memorial justice in the South — and appreciation for Loewen's critical contributions to it.” Memorials and landmarks continue to be sites where we continue to struggle over racism and place character, as I wrote about in an  Everyday Sociology Blog post about the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina state house grounds in 2015. In this article written 15 years earlier, Loewen emphasized that, “All across the South, from Maryland to Texas, historical markers, monuments, and historic sites get history wrong, mostly on purpose.”

I have found Loewen’s work on sundown towns to be particularly compelling. He defined sundown towns as cities, towns, counties, even whole subregions that for decades were all-white on purpose. Loewen published a good introduction to the topic of sundown towns in a 2005 issue of Poverty & Race, which is available here.

In his work, Loewen made it clear that sundown towns are not an aspect of the past that has faded from our society, but rather a type of community that still exists in many places across the United States today. The New York Times obituary says that Loewen, “charged through history like a warrior, dismantling fictions and exposing towns for excluding minorities.” The sundown towns website built from his work continues in that posture. On the front page, it is explained:

Even though most sundown towns are “recovering” – that is, they no longer actively prohibit nonwhite residents – many still suffer from “second-generation sundown town issues.” Therefore it remains important to “out” every sundown town in America and encourage them to take steps to actively transcend their white supremacist pasts.

While it may be difficult to grapple with a town’s racist past (or present), Loewen’s work has inspired residents and leaders in many towns to reckon these issues. As Jack Shuler reported for the Christian Science Monitor, even small towns across the Midwest, like Utica, Ohio, and Goshen, Indiana, are beginning to come to terms with the legacy of racism that still shapes their communities.

The history--and present--of sundown towns is compelling for many reasons, as is the sociology of these places. As an urban sociologist, I study and teach about how the places we live shape our lives and opportunities. But also, we each shape the places that we live. We contribute to their place character in the ways that we socially construct perceptions of our places. We also make choices that shape our places, including where we live, which schools we attend, which local organizations we participate in, and which neighbors we welcome. While it may be rarer today for someone to post a sign at the edge of town intended to warn off others, the choices we make still contribute to the inclusion or exclusion of others, and shape the patterns of segregation we see in our communities.

Loewen’s work on sundown towns helps to illustrate the extent of racial segregation in the US. While we are now more than 60 years past Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools because it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, public schools today are  even more segregated in many places than they were decades ago. Public school segregation is of course a reflection of broader residential segregation patterns. By their measure of isolation, Sean Reardon and Ann Owens found patterns of stalled desegregation and increased isolation for black students across public schools in recent decades.

A more recent report from the Civil Rights Project outlines the extent of racial segregation in public schools at the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The authors of this report found that, segregation for black students was rising across all regions of the U.S., and that “Black students, who account for 15% of enrollment, as they did in 1970, are in schools that average 47% black students.” They also found that deepening patterns of segregation across all racial groups, with white students themselves being among the most segregated. Emma Garcia for the Economic Policy Institute explains here how attending racially and economically segregated schools contributes to student achievement gaps and higher poverty rates among students in and from segregated schools..

Of course, this deepening of segregation did not just happen, but are the result of individual, institutional, and community choices. Just as Loewen contended that sundown towns are all white on purpose, others have noted that the segregation we see today is the result of purposeful choices as well. For example, Patrick Sharkey recently illustrated Americans have built actual, physical barricades in our cities that have lead to further segregation an inequality.

Loewen’s work illustrates just how widespread, or common, sundown towns have been throughout the United States. For his part, when Loewen began studying sundown towns in 1999 he focused first on his home state of Illinois and by 2020, he had identified more than 500 sundown towns in Illinois.

Are there sundown towns near you? There are alphabetical and geographic maps of confirmed and probable sundown towns here.

You can take up the call to study sundown towns. The authors of the sundown towns website explain that the first urgent need is for work that confirms or disconfirms probable sundown towns. Many students, from middle schoolers up through Ph.D. students, have researched sundown towns, according to the website. For example, Professor Jean Moule at Oregon State University has led several classes in studying sundown towns of Oregon, and you can read some of the student’s findings here. Professor Stephen Berrey coordinates the Sundown Towns database, and at the University of Michigan, he’ll be teaching an undergraduate research seminar in which students will be conducting research on possible sundown towns this fall. Dr. Berrey encourages anyone interested in exploring these issues further to contact him at [email protected].

If you want to get started studying sundown towns near you, you might look around this interactive map of sundown towns across the US, here.


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You can accept the invitation to research sunset towns. According to the developers of the sunset towns website, the first and most pressing need is for study that validates or disproves the existence of possible sundown villages.

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