‘Sundown Towns’ under a spotlight in new Investigation Discovery documentary

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Last night’s edition of filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s The Injustice Files: Sundown Towns on Investigation Discovery refocused attention on what is now known as “sundown towns,” places where African-Americans were not welcomed “after the sun went down” and, in some instances, purposely driven out altogether.

Some of these areas warned black people by signage that, if caught there after dark, they could be killed. Most, however, were known to do so, especially among African-Americans in the area, by rumor and reputation.

In 2005, James W. Loewen, an American sociologist, historian and author who first taught at historically black college Tougaloo in Jackson, Mississippi, explored this practice in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Loewen, best known for his bestselling 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, insists that the phenomenon of “sundown towns” are largely Northern and not Southern, focusing heavily on his native Illinois.

This idea, however, that Midwestern towns and those in other areas outside the South actively created “sundown towns” has largely been ignored by the media. In the United States, racism is most often viewed as a Southern reality and, thus, the media has largely stuck to that script. In 2006, for example, the one-time CNN show Paula Zahn Now, sparked by Loewen’s book, spotlighted the Texas town of Vidor near Beaumont.

Loewen challenges this notion in his 2009 article “Sundown Towns and Counties: Racial Exclusion in the South,” for the academic journal Southern Cultures  by calling Hollywood out for films like 1997′s Grosse Pointe Blank, which failed to indicate that the Detroit suburb “was off-limits to blacks throughout the era it depicts . . .” and, likewise, the more well-known 1986 film Hoosiers has black players and black people in the stands for a basketball game in Jasper, Indiana in the 1950s when that was highly unlikely.

Like many, Loewen, who was born in Decatur, Illinois, assumed that his town and those surrounding it were naturally all-white due to the dominance in population,  and not because African-Americans and other minority groups were not allowed to live there. “Growing up, I knew those towns were all white, but I didn’t give it a second thought. But it turns out that almost every one of those towns was all-white on purpose,” he told the Washington Post in 2006.

According to Loewen this practice dates back to the 1890s, a time when just 119 of the U.S.’s thousands of counties had no African-American residents. By 1930, he notes, the number had nearly doubled and almost 700 counties had fewer than 10 African-Americans living there. Dubbed “The Great Retreat” by Loewen, this process of expelling of African-Americans began during the period spanning from Reconstruction’s end in 1877 to roughly 1901, with some extending the time frame to 1920, during which racial violence against African-Americans was quite extreme, especially in the South because many white Southerners longed for slavery’s reinstatement.

African-American historian Rayford Logan terms this period “the nadir” or the “lowest point” of race relations. In response, as many as 50,000 African-Americans left the South in droves for the Midwest in what is known as the Exoduster Movement or the Black Exodus between 1879 and 1881.

Relocation to the Midwest, however, did not shield them from racial intimidation. The formation of the NAACP, for instance, was largely in response to the race riot there in 1908, ignited by a white woman beaten by a white man who pinned it on a black man instead. Horrified, Mary White Ovington, a white social worker who worked with African-Americans in New York, came together with William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moskowitz, both white as well, in early 1909 and later issued the call that would result in the NAACP. During the 1920s, the Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan was also quite active, exacting much influence on local politics. And its offshoots sustained this power and control for some time.

With Sundown Towns, executive produced by Al Roker, Beauchamp (who came to prominence with his 2005 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, a catalyst for getting the United States Department of Justice to re-open the case) chose to highlight Illinois and Indiana, especially the town of Martinsville, Indiana where justice was never served for Carol Jenkins, a young black woman selling encyclopedias who was apparently murdered for being there after dark.

Taking a road trip to Indiana and Illinois with The Green Book, the Jim Crow-era guide that alerted black travelers where they could and could not safely stop, close by, Beauchamp, a Baton Rouge native, said with Sundown Towns, “I was really hoping to prove Loewen wrong.”

Beauchamp, who lives in Brooklyn, shared that his thinking was ‘look, we got a black president in office I wonder if I can live anywhere I want.’  Instead, he said, “It was really just a huge awakening.”

Injustice Files: Sundown Towns re-airs on Investigation Discovery March 1 at 7 a.m.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha