- Patricia Sulbarán Lovera
- BBC News Mundo correspondent in Los Angeles
When Tanita Harris-Logins moved with her family to a city in California, her acquaintances began to ask her what she was doing there and that made her suspicious.
“They were very surprised that a black person lived there,” he tells BBC Mundo.
She had come with her family from Orlando, Florida, to Glendale, a city in north Los Angeles, attracted by a job that came to her husband.
Harris-Logins noted that the place had a good school district for their three children and that ended up convincing them to move in 2008.
“But I didn’t think about the impact it would have on them,” he recalls.
Glendale has a bleak past as a “sunset” town or sundown town, the name given to the many places in the United States that used methods, formal or informal, to exclude black residents and other races and ethnicities.
In many cases the towns or cities admitted black workers, but did not allow them to reside there, so they had to leave at sunset.
Last September, Glendale passed a resolution calling for Sorry officially because of its racist past, an action taken by roughly a dozen cities and towns across the United States.
“That just leaves us with 15,000 places more with a similar past “, says the sociologist James W. Loewen, who has researched the subject extensively and in 2005 published the book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (“Sunset Cities: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism”).
What exactly happened in these places and what legacy have they left?
“Don’t let the sun go down on you”
The “sunset” peoples arose, above all, in the northern region of the United States between 1890 and 1940Loewen says, although he cautions that some continued to appear until the 1960s.
“A lot of people think America started its history in a fantastic way and then it just kept getting better, but it’s not true. Between 1890 and 1940 we gradually became more and more racist“, Explain.
In the south it was less common, despite the presence of a large black population.
“It seemed like a ridiculous idea to southern whites because they employed black people for housework,” he says.
Frequently and as documented by Loewen, the “sunset” localities allowed one black family to live there while driving out the rest or refusing to let them reside in the neighborhoods.
The sociologist cites as an example the town of Pana, in Illinois (central-western part of the country) that on his highway he placed “terrible signs who said something like ‘[palabra ofensiva], don’t let the sun go down in Pana ‘”, referring to the black visitors.
However, Loewen documented that, according to census figures from 1910 to 1920, about six African-Americans were listed as residents of the place.
The explanation is one that is repeated in similar localities: it was only allowed to live the barber and his family, explains the academic.
“Informal methods of excluding black people and other people of color in Glendale included intimidation and violence. Harassment of black people moving or visiting Glendale is well documented, with hate crimes reported in newspapers from the 1900s to the 1990s. Additionally, non-white people were prohibited from being buried in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, until the 1960s. “
-Glendale City Council Report, September 2020.
When Loewen began documenting the history of these towns and cities more than two decades ago, she thought she would only find a dozen of these in her home state of Illinois. As of today, it has a count of 506 (70% of the towns in the state).
One of the best known places in Illinois for its history of racism is Anna, with a population of less than 5,000 inhabitants, of which 96% are white.
“I found references that black people they were not allowed to live there in newspaper articles since 1903, “wrote journalist Logan Jaffe in an article by ProPublica last year.
Jaffe spent two years accumulating oral memory and documentation on Anna’s story and found, for example, an excerpt from a 1903 journal article that read: “How fortunate we are to have so few ‘from the darkest Africa’ among us. U.S”.
Six years later a black man would be lynched without the right to trial less than 72 hours after he was accused of having killed a young woman from the town, the report describes.
The most common method under which these exclusions were carried out is what Loewen describes as driving while black (to drive while black). It meant that the police detained black drivers who were visiting or residing in the town.
“They harassed the driver, his teenage son, they held people back and made them get out of the car to do evil things to them,” he describes.
But they also existed unrest driven by white residents, explains the sociologist.
“Many small towns expelled the black population and burned their houses or took them over.”
Another mechanism that was used especially in the suburbs was the steering, under which real estate agents diverted buyers away from certain neighborhoods because of his race.
Ultimately, Loewen adds, the places built reputations for “not being black-friendly” that were perpetuated.
In addition to black communities, there is documentation of exclusion of Chinese-Americans in the 1870s and 1880s, as well as Jews in coastal towns and Native Americans in some parts of the west of the country, as well as Mexicans, according to the researcher.
The stories of how thousands of cities and towns remained inhabited almost exclusively by whites are often not well documented, Loewen says.
“You have to investigate through oral history. Nobody wants to write bad things about their own people,” he warns.
The city council of Glendale indicated in its report this year that it did not find an official record of any legislation that discriminated against blacks, but that there is “ample documentary evidence” that it was a sundown town.
The report adds that the city also hosted active members of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization of white supremacists, since the 1920s.
“The formal methods that kept Glendale’s population totally white are most clearly represented by racially restrictive housing covenants … By 1940, Glendale was seen as a model for other communities who wanted to restrict access to housing based on the race.
That year, Glendale was cited by the California Real Estate Association as’ worthy of singular praise for using measures to maintain it as a community. ‘100% Caucasian‘”.
-Glendale City Council Report, September 2020.
Tanita Harris-Logins talks about the impact the move to Glendale had on her children because of the experiences they began to have at school.
“They made fun of them, some were verbally insulted,” he says. “Many (of the black children) were treated differently by the school system.”
Harris-Logins says that her son couldn’t find a place to sit during recess, as the children were grouped according to their race or ethnicity.
“On one side were Latinos, on another side were Armenians (Glendale has a large Armenian community), on another were whites, and my son told me that didn’t know how to fit in“, describe.
Harris-Logins realized that, for example, the school did not celebrate Black History Month and decided to form Black in Glendale, a neighborhood community that also does activism in the city.
Without referring specifically to Glendale, sociologist Loewel explains that many black families still see ven affected for the legacy of the “sunset” cities.
He cites as key problems the presence of an overwhelmingly white and unrepresentative police force, or an equally overwhelming number of white public teachers.
“When George Floyd’s death occurred while in police custody (in Minnesota), the city had to look in the mirror,” says Tara Peterson, director of the YWCA Glendale, an organization that fights against racism.
“Take the step of recognize, if you are part of a community that has a legacy, it is liberating for everyone, “he says.
Harris-Logins agrees with that, though he reflects on what it means to confront racism in America today.
“We came from Florida, a very segregated state, so racism was not something new for my children,” he says.
“California seems to have this noble reputation for being very progressive, but it is no different from other states. Overall, this is the experience for black people in America, unless you’re in a predominantly black city, “he says.
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