Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

In August 1908, two-thirds of the black residents of an American state capital fled their city, a vengeful white mob hard on their heels. The whites had been disappointed in their attempt to lynch a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman and so vented their rage on the entire black community. Shouting “Abe Lincoln brought them…and we will drive them out,” the mob rampaged through black neighborhoods, torching homes and killing two men. The state militia was slow in arriving to quell the violence; no one was ever convicted of either the murders or the arson that occurred during the two-day riot. In a small town down the road, emboldened white citizens posted a sign: “All niggers are warned out of town by Monday, 12 m. sharp. Buffalo Sharp Shooters.”

These brutal events, related in James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, occurred not somewhere deep in the Jim Crow South, but in Lincoln’s onetime home, Springfield, Ill. Incidents such as the Springfield mobbing are still viewed by most Americans as shameful exceptions; the story of the States still assumes that tolerance, however grudging, has been the rule in small-town life, at least outside the South. In Sundown Towns, Loewen sets out to disrupt this cozy confidence with the claim that aggressive acts aimed at excluding racial minorities have been the rule, not the exception, in the life of the American town.

Although trained as a sociologist, best-selling iconoclast Loewen has passed most of his career working to subvert the teaching of American history as we know it. A heartlander himself, born and raised in central Illinois, Loewen spent a college semester in Mississippi in 1963, near the height of the civil-rights movement there, and has written extensively about race relations in that state. He is co-author of Mississippi: Conflict and Change, a 1974 textbook once banned from Mississippi classrooms for its frank treatment of race. Loewen has since made a successful business out of exposing American self-deceptions in such works as 1999’s Lies Across America—What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong and 1995’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Sundown Towns argues that after a “springtime of race relations” that lasted from the end of the Civil War until about 1890, conditions faced by black Americans deteriorated sharply. Majority-white communities across the country began forcing out their black residents using an arsenal of tactics ranging from coldly genteel ostracism to murderous, barn-burning violence. These efforts forced the flight of black citizens, which Loewen labels the “Great Retreat,” from their former small-town homes to big cities, where they were packed into black ghettos. It also created “thousands” of “sundown towns”—towns that, so Loewen argues, successfully prohibited nonwhites from taking up residence or even being present after dark.

It’s a powerful thesis, one that strikes at the notion that American racism can be corralled to certain times and places. Unfortunately, Loewen’s history chops aren’t entirely capable of supporting it. For one, he romanticizes the postwar years as a time when “anti-racist idealism played a dominant role in American political life,” when Republicans fought for black enfranchisement “because it was the right thing to do” and acted with the “landslide” support of Northern voters who “signaled their satisfaction with this anti-racist national policy” and who permitted the entry of African-Americans into their communities as “the appropriate, even patriotic thing to do.”

Whatever racial honeymoon Americans enjoyed hardly survived the death of the federal Reconstruction effort in 1877. The Civil War was barely over when Southern legislatures began enacting laws designed to rein in black citizens’ newly recognized rights. And Loewen mistakes the tenor of even those hopeful Reconstruction years. While philanthropically minded white people of the day might have been willing to extend the hand of Christian charity to their struggling black brethren, many remained comfortable in their opinion of the divinely ordained “inferiority of the Negro.” As Eric Foner recounts in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, only five states, all in New England, allowed blacks to vote on the same terms as whites. Even Lincoln for a time had viewed the “return” of black Americans to Africa as the best means of addressing the nation’s race problem.

In his attempt to document the Great Retreat, Loewen tallies up the number of counties in 39 states outside the Old Confederacy that showed few or no black residents in the 1890 and 1930 censuses. The data he presents show that the dispersion of black residents did not increase in any state during that period and that, in fact, the number of counties with few or no black residents rose from 575 to 929. The figures are evidence, says Loewen, that “[f]rom town after town, county after county—even from whole regions—African Americans were driven by white opposition, winding up in huge northern ghettos.”

But how significant are these numbers? For instance, Loewen’s data for Illinois, where much of his research was focused, provide only shaky support for his argument. The author observes that the number of Illinois counties with few or no black residents increased from six in 1890 to 23 in 1930. But a look at the census data shows that this increase reflects the relocation of not quite 500 people over a period of 40 years and a space of more than 100 counties. And though Loewen asserts that the Great Retreat was a distinct and significant black diaspora, the rate of urbanization of black Illinoisans closely matched that of white citizens right up to the 1910s—the decade of the well-documented Great Migration, which involved not the depopulation of Illinois’ small towns but the movement of Southern farm workers to Northern industrial centers.

Loewen is unable to wring much additional help from his documentary evidence, which is highly selective and too often hearsay. A source that is “probably” accurate or perhaps “needs corroboration” or represents something the author “suspect[s]” will persuade only those readers who are already convinced.

But if Loewen’s use of narrative data is no more masterful than his use of census statistics—and if it, too, fails to support his theory of systematic exclusion—it should still be enough to persuade his readers that ethnic cleansing in the American heartland, if perhaps not pervasive, was not uncommon. The book provides a useful catalog of American ingenuity in the cause of ethnic purity. Tactics have included the use of mob savagery, such as the white riot in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, to displace entire black communities; alleged enactment of local ordinances prohibiting black citizens from being present after dark (though Loewen does not document this conclusively); and the posting of sundown signs (“Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark”)—of which Loewen documents 184 instances in 32 states.

Sundown Towns is at its best when tracing the connections between the flagrant segregating tactics of yesteryear and today’s more subtle mechanisms. As he points out, while lynching has by now received appropriate scholarly attention, the practices of residential exclusion—more insidious and thus perhaps more potent—have not. Loewen’s anecdotal evidence again isn’t enough to prove that blacks were methodically evicted to the urban north, but it does ground his demand for a new way of thinking about America’s racial geography. Loewen insists that America’s racially coded landscape of white suburbs and colored inner cities is not a mere happenstance, let alone some “natural order” of things, but rather the direct result of the day-to-day choices Americans make.

So as long as it’s a mark of status to live in an affluent, all-white suburb, Loewen argues, it is nearly impossible to maintain mixed-race neighborhoods, since households will head for the suburbs as soon as they have the wherewithal. Corralling the impoverished into inner-city ghettos makes it easy for well-heeled voters to support cuts to national safety-net programs while still insulating themselves from crime, lousy public services, and other symptoms of social distress. “Since affluent sundown suburbs are not politically connected to nearby inner-city neighborhoods, the system of white supremacy that makes them so much nicer is not obvious,” says Loewen. “The problems in black neighborhoods look like black problems.”

Sundown Towns presents enough evidence to make the point that is perhaps most important to its author—that the way we tell the American story needs to be turned upside down and given a good shake. Clearly, Loewen hopes for the day when the homogenous ghettos of the elite become objects of derision rather than objects of desire. Until that day, Sundown Towns asks that when we tell the history of the American metropolitan landscape, we at least try to get the story straight.CP