City Paper is not for tourists
I thank Bell Clement for accurately stating the basic design of my book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (“Race to the Finish,” 12/23/05). She also rightly infers that I do hope “for the day when the homogenous ghettos of the elite become objects of derision rather than objects of desire.”
However, her critique of my statistics misfires. Between 1890 and 1940, the “Nadir of Race Relations,” Northern as well as Southern whites indeed forced African-Americans into a “Great Retreat” from towns across the North. Absent white hostility, one would expect their further diffusion. That didn’t happen. Instead, in Illinois, for example, the state Clement cites, rather than dispersing further into those counties where they were rare in 1890, blacks pulled back into just a few urban centers like East St. Louis, Peoria, Decatur, and the South Side of Chicago.
Clement doubts that the Great Retreat happened. She points out that up to the 1910s, “the rate of urbanization of black Illinoisans closely matched that of white citizens.” Consider these numbers: in 1890 blacks were more rural than whites; the proportion of black Illinoisans living in Cook County (Chicago), for example (26 percent), was less than that of whites (35 percent). By 1910, blacks were equally urban (43 percent vs. 43 percent), and by 1940, they were strikingly more so: 76 percent lived in Cook County, compared to just 40 percent of white Illinoisans.
This astonishing concentration did not result from black preference for the bright lights of the big city. Force was a major factor. Sundown Towns reprints a 1952 map of 80 towns in Southern Illinois, all listed as “Centers of Manufacturing.” Of the 80, I found that 51 were sundown towns. Whites in West Frankfort, for example, drove out their entire black community in 1920. “Benton Negroes Given Leave of Absence” headlined a Southern Illinois newspaper in 1923, telling how that city forced its black hotel workers to leave. Pinckneyville drove out its African-Americans, probably in 1928.
Nor was Southern Illinois unusual. I invite Washington City Paper readers to read Sundown Towns (in the library—you don’t have to buy it!) and decide for themselves whether it is likely that a majority of all towns in various states excluded blacks, or whether, as Clement put it, such practices were merely “not uncommon.”