I am taking a course called "History of an Injustice" at the Servant Leadership School here in DC.
From the course overview:
The segregation and poverty of the American inner-city ghetto is no accident but the inevitable product of the racism of our history. From the Sundown Towns that forcibly evicted their black (and sometimes Chinese or even Jewish) residents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to the increasing apartheid of the twenty-first century American public school system, structural injustice has created the ghetto. In this class we'll study that history, look at some other kinds of poverty, and begin to develop a vision for a more inclusive community that might emerge from the current global economic crisis.
I have only been to one class, but so far it has been fascinating. I am really looking forward to learning about the untold stories of injustice in America.
The first assignment was to read selections from a book about Sundown Towns. Imagine Clint Eastwood telling a no good cattle rustler to get out by sundown...or else. In fact it wasn't criminals that were told to get out but minorities. And it wasn't in the gold rush days it was in the 20th century. It was shockingly common and is not particularly difficult to document, yet entirely left out of our history books.
Reno, Nevada where I grew is not listed on the author's site as a sundown town but many nearby towns are:
"A local resident who lived in Gardnerville in the 1950s describes [it]. He thought the same whistle or siren served both Minden and Gardnerville; it was probably near the border. Indians ... worked in Gardnerville, were maids, etc., but had to be out by sundown. He heard the 6PM whistle; everyone knew, white and Indian, what it was for. "Indians made themselves scarce" at 6PM. Nobody enforced it rigidly, doing anything to anyone still in town at 6:30PM. Still, "I never heard of anybody violating it." ... Gardnerville had a Chinese-run Joy Land Cafe. The Chinese didn't have to leave. No blacks in Gardnerville to his knowledge. The Chinese were friendly with the Indians, but the Indians had to eat in the back room."
(In other words in the 1950s a whistle blew every day in Minden/Gardnerville that told all of the Indians to get out of town)
"Truckee locals attempted to start a boycott against Chinese goods and laborers in their town. When many merchants continued to employ Chinese Americans, some locals turned to more direct means, such as cutting off Chinese men's braids and hanging the braids outside their houses. In June 1886, after many Chinese Americans had already left Truckee, the city fathers burned the Chinatown to the ground. Women were invited to witness the event, and fire wagons surrounded Chinatown to prevent the fire spreading to the rest of Truckee."
(Granola munching folks from Truckee of today inherit a town that was cleansed by force and fire of Chinese merchants)
I had never heard about the concept of sundown towns before reading this book. At first, I was a bit skeptical of some of his more extreme claims that so many towns across America were actually forced African Americans out. I thought perhaps he was stretching his own definition, indeed his own term, so that he could lump in more towns with the more radical ones.
My own experience told me that it was quite natural that some towns are more white that others, and it therefore followed that some towns might be entirely white. But this seeminly rational thought gets blown apart when the author shows data from 39 states showing how blacks routinely left county after county during the 20th century. In other words, the United States was more integrated in 1900 than in 2000 - the author was not stretching the truth - its my own history that is flawed.
Why isn't this commonly known? Why has history squelched this? Why are we raised to feel comfortable about the fact that our neighborhoods and schools are almost entirely monoracial (aka segregated)? Is there some kind of white person mythology that is being passed off as truth, as history?
I am reminded of a TED talk by Nate Silver that investigates racism and voting.
It seems obvious, but people who live in racial segregation are racist. Perhaps if we want to fight racism we need to take conscious steps to live in more diverse neighborhoods.
More information about Sundown towns can be found on the wikipedia page about Sundown Towns. Also don't miss this trailer for a video about ethnic cleansing in the US.