Monday, June 15, 2015

A BROKEN WINGED BIRD CANNOT FLY... A Reflection on Sundown Towns and the Collective "Forgetting" of Injustice

Mc Kinney, Texas "Best Places To Live in America"

I.               Cognitive dissonance question

When did you first become aware of race?

Sundown towns are towns like Anna, Illinois, where it is said that the name ANNA stands for “Aint’ No N-----s Allowed” and where there is a memory of the town having had signs at the corporate border that say, Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in _________________.  In Anna, and nearby Jonesboro, such signs existed as recently as 1970.

A famous Sundown town in Kentucky is Corbin, the home of Col. Sanders, who was never really any kind of Colonel, but who was a great salesman for a fried chicken recipe. Corbin drove out all of the black residents in 1919 after a poker game between workers on the rail line. Later the story was changed to one about a rape and a hanging. But from that time on, blacks were kept out.
Corbin KY, 1930s

Most of these Sundown Towns were started by an incident or rationalized by a story about a crime, a loss of jobs, or sometimes very absurd explanations.

In reality the towns were created deliberately, and the roots were manifold: labor strife (the earliest unions were vehemently racist); school segregation; the help of the FHA, which made home loans nigh impossible for African Americans; real estate salespersons and contracts;

Perhaps you, like I, find all of this shameful and a cause for aversion. You know, though, that it’s true. Places in the South and the Midwest have been and still are, if not blatantly, then covertly racist.

But, hold on.

In fact, there are almost no Sundown Towns in South.

Almost all Sundown Towns are in the Northeast, the Upper South, and the Midwest. Some of the most glaring examples are Darien, CT;  LaJolla, CA; and the west shore of the Great lakes near Detroit around and including Grosse Point.

slightly swarthy, or not at all?" and "Accents -
pronounced, medium, slight, not at all?" The
maximum score for the survey was 100, with most
prospective residents needing a score of 50.

However, according to Michigan Attorney General
Paul Adams, "a Pole is expected to have five
additional points. An Italian, Yugoslav, Greek,
Syrian, Lebanese, Armenian, Maltese, Rumanian, or
other southern European is required to have 15
additional points. A Jew is required to have 35
additional points and his points are more difficult
to achieve because of penalties in a special marking
system for Jews. Orientals and Negroes are not
considered at all."   (from the SUNDOWN TOWNS website)

So.. when we think about the pool party that was held in Texas, and the out-of-control police officer who sat on a 14 year old girl, we have to place it in a context of white privilege. And while we are speaking of Sundown Towns, and neighborhoods, we can talk for a moment about pools.

Perhaps you recall the incident in 2009, when a group of children from a Daycare in Huntington Valley, PA, were taken to a private swim club and then, the following day, asked not to return? It happens that the children were all African American and Latino. “We don’t want to change the atmosphere and the complexion of the club,” the manager said.

The daycare sued. The 60 kids and the daycare were awarded over 1 million dollars.

One little boy was interviewed, a guy about six. You know what he said? He said that when they got into the pool, the white parents started getting their kids out of the pool. He heard them saying things about the black kids.

This is painful. This makes us feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to know these things.
Valley Club pool

But that is the swim club, the pool, that my Uncle Don and Aunt Julia took us to whenever we visited them in the summer. I recognized it right away when I heard the stories. Going there was such a treat. They had pretzel sticks and I used to get one and put mustard on it. I can recall so many details of the days we spent there, carefree and joyful. But, of course, I didn’t know, nor did anyone tell me, that what I enjoyed was denied, and would still be denied 50 years later, to kids of color.
I think the pool/swimming issue is particularly painful and present, is one we can all touch upon. For there is almost no one who did not go swimming someplace during the summer, and who did not realize, at some level, that a form of racism was being exercised in who could and could not swim where. By the way, The Valley Swim Club finally declared bankruptcy and is now closed. And the children, their counselors, and various community groups are receiving their portions of the settlement. But what sum of money can erase the memory of being SIX years old and having white mothers pull their children out of the pool when you jump in? In 2009? In Pennsylvania. Not Kentucky, not Alabama. the suburbs of Philadelphia.

When we think about pools, about swim clubs, and exclusion, we are talking about suburbs. And in his book and website, Sundown Towns,  Prof. James Loewen proves convincingly that virtually every suburb  that was intentionally formed was created as a sundown town.

The real issue is: Why did we never ask a question? A simple question, such as, “Why do so many Black people live in Camden?” or “Don’t African American people want to go to the shore?’ and if we asked, and the answer made no sense, why didn’t we make it our business, once we were old enough, to say something, do something, make waves, make at least some ripples?

Growing up, in the same house I’m now staying in, I was on the far edge of the small town of Hainesport, just the equivalent of a few city blocks from Mt. Laurel. And yet, I never knew that there was any reason why there were no “colored” children at all in my elementary school; nor did I ask. I only met two persons of color prior to going to the bigger High School in Mt. Holly: Emma, who cared for us and for the house after my mother died, and Mr. Cook, the Phys ed teacher.
Actually, the house I live in is very likely to have been on the Underground Railroad, as the town of Haines'Port, like all of the surrounding towns, was founded by Quakers, all of whom were very active in the Underground RR. Lately, I have been looking at some of the nooks and crannies in the basement and attic and wondering which ones were devised to hide escaping slaves. I wish they could tell.
My childhood home, Hainesport N.J.

Sadly, these Quakers were no so peaceful when it came to the Lenni-Lenape Indians, whom they displaced from the entire area. But, at least, the truth about that is told. It would be rather difficult to lie.

Mt. Laurel Friends Meeting House

My father referred to a road near us as “Jewtown.” I had no idea what that meant, nor did I meet anyone who was Jewish until much later in life. But on that road, in addition to some very dilapidated and decrepit buildings and houses, was one that intrigued me. On it was a symbol that I now realize as the Star of David. In the 1960s, almost all of the Jews of Mt. Laurel had left that intentional ghetto and had sold their homes to poor whites and African Americans.

But the story is way more complicated. “Jewtown,” also known as Springville, had been populated by freed Blacks and tenant farmers since the 17th century.  This is understandable, since we know that Mt. Laurel, like many of the surrounding towns, was founded by Quakers, who not only employed and lived peacefully with freed Blacks, but actually operated the Underground Railroad. Only after WWII, when Blacks sought an end to segregated schools, and proposed to build housing for low income families, did the Sundown policies begin. In 1970, the Mayor spoke to citizens at the AME Chapel and told them: If you can’t afford to live in our town, then you will just have to leave.”

Jacobs Chapel AME Church

(ironically, if you go to the Mt. Laurel webpage, the only photo under historic places is this chapel. Yet no mention is made of the landmark case that changed the face of public housing, albeit by fits and starts)

All of this, and lawsuits that followed, gave rise to the Mt. Laurel I and II decisions, NJ State Supreme Court Decisions, as well as the 1985 Fair Housing Act, all of which provide for an allotted number of low and moderate income housing units in every municipality. Still, many zip codes get around this, as they are able to “buy” off part of their obligations by supporting housing projects in neighboring cities or towns. But these are landmark cases, as important to race relations as Brown v. Board of Education. I am appalled that I knew nothing, and that no one told me, and that later, I didn’t pay attention.

Gradually, I learned some of these things. But not until long after I left this state. I lived there. I rode my bike past the former synagogue. I benefitted from the privilege of living in Hainesport, Moorestown (which once only allowed Blacks in the back row of its movie theatre), and at the Jersey shore, where African Americans (and Jews) were excluded both actively and passively, and in some cases still are. Did you know that there were gates at the entrance to Ocean Grove that separated it from Asbury Park? They are no longer there, but longtime residents are sure that the purpose of these gates were to keep A-A out after sundown. Of course, Ocean Grove is a wonderful Christian place, so maybe that isn’t true.

Finally, I wonder whether anyone who lives in Mays Landing or Hamilton township has heard of Mizpah? This part of your township was formed as a Jewish community for a group of cloak makers although it died out as a community. I wonder who lives there now? Are they white or African American?I am asking this because Hamilton Township is listed in Dr. Loewen’s database along with this report:

Mizpah Cloak Factory and the Jewish community

Mizpah Hotel (1930s)

Mizpah, NJ... an African American community

Hamilton Township is a mostly pinelands township
about 15 miles west of Atlantic City. A former mayor
recalled growing up in the town, and how there were
no blacks allowed after dark in the Mays Landing
village section of the township, with the exception of
the town barber. Instead, everyone of color was
required to live (and to this day many still do) live
about five miles west in the Mizpah section of the
township. They were informal restrictions, he said, but
they existed.

Here is another report from a Cape May County area resident:

I grew up in Southern New Jersey, on the Delaware bay. And I have never lived in a more overtly vicious racist area, and I have lived in both NC and VA the last 23 years. My aunt lives in Dividing Creek, NJ, a very small redneck village close to Newport and Fortescue. It has never allowed a black family to live there. Ever. Just a few years ago a very brave family did, and their HOUSE was burned down while they were away. Homes proudly fly the Battle Flag.

As Loewen shrewdly notes, “our culture teaches us to locate overt racism long ago (in the nineteenth century) or far away (in the South) or to marginalize it as the work of a few crazed deviants.”

(Dan Carter)

As I read Loewen’s book, however, it seemed to me that white Northerners chose a different path: amnesia.

It is, I suppose, the natural response of most cultures when confronted with a painful past. “Every nation,” wrote the nineteenth-century French philosopher Ernest Renan, “is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting,” what British statesman William Gladstone called “a blessed act of oblivion” that allows old adversaries to put aside past grievances and live together in peace.

But we are not living together in peace. We are living separately, in suspicion and distrust. Everywhere we look, we see the long shadow of our racist past in the re-segregation of our public schools and the growing isolation of the poorest African Americans in impoverished inner cities, in the continuing wealth and income gap between black and white, and in the unconscionable explosion of a “prison-industrial complex” that incarcerates millions of black men, consigning them to a lifetime in the shadows of our society.
None of us should feel personal responsibility for what our parents or grandparents did or did not do. But there will be guilt enough for our own generation if we do not confront and address the bitter consequences of the story that James Loewen has revealed so powerfully in Sundown Towns.

II.             Allies

When we learn about these things, what then can we do?

According to Loewen, there is a great deal that can be done, and should be done. Indeed, churches and civic organizations are just the groups to do it, because clearly, neither chambers of commerce, Historical Societies, or locals who benefit from and/or are uncomfortable with white privilege have done anything nor will they.

We can do the research. We can work for legal solutions, reparations, recognition, or reconciliation.

We can help to be agents of truth telling to present and future generations.

We can apologize for our inability to see what we should have seen so clearly, for being a part of the problem and accepting the benefits that came along with it.

III.           Opportunity

In w hat ways is the sky opening up now?

Residential segregation is one reason race continues to be such a problem in America. But race really isn’t the problem. Exclusion is the problem. As soon as we realize that the problem is white supremacy, rather than black existence or black inferiority, then it becomes clear that sundown towns are r racial inequality is encoded in the most basic single fact in our society—where you can live—the united states will face continuing racial tension, if not overt conflict. (Loewen, p. 17)