There's More to Life Than Knitting!

Join Suna as she stops knitting long enough to ponder her life, share her joys and concerns, and comment on the goings on in the world.
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Monday, February 25, 2008

My Woeful Ignorance

I think of myself as fairly well read, up on history and current events, and aware of the world around me. Thus, I was really shocked to run across an article in my denomination's usually pretty stodgy and hard-to-read member publication about what are called Sundown Towns. I'll wait while you go check out this article, which is by a guy named James Loewen, who also wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

I felt so ignorant and foolish, not realizing that very near me for much of my life were these...places...entire cities that were populated exclusively by people like me, plain ole white caucasians. Others were specifically barred. I guess I thought if that happened, it was in the past. Or not in MY back yard. And don't get all smug and think, well, what did Suna expect? She's from the Deep South, after all. No, the all white all the time places I lived near were all in central Illinois, or the Chicago suburbs. Shudder. Some of them places I have BEEN.

Lee pointed out that there used to be towns in Texas that were all made up of a particular group, usually whoever settled there. But all the little places I have been had more than one group--there are always ethnically Mexican people, who interact better with the Germans and Czechs than in many parts of Austin, from what I can see.

I am just shocked that there are still places that ban people of color today. Part of this is that I grew up in places where there were always blacks and whites. You didn't get very far in northern Florida without the black people--even in "separate but equal" times, people did business with each other (my grandmother, in the 40s, had a black business partner, for example, in a boarding house). Where my dad grew up in the Georgia hills, there were all kinds of families, and he always told the story that he obeyed the black mother down the road just like his own mother. They were all poor and struggling, and that made them have more in common than not!

Since I became an adult, I have lived in very diverse places, and have always been so glad that it was so. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois was certainly not a Sundown Town at the time I lived there, if it ever was. With a large university in town, there were people from all over the world, many of whom settled there after their schooling was done. And while there were predominantly black and white areas, there was no banning of selling houses--we were told over and over it was illegal. And we had all kinds of neighbors--if you could afford the house, you could live there! And I wanted to know Indians, Moroccans, South Americans, Koreans and Americans of all colors.

When we came to the Austin area, I checked to be sure I saw brown and yellow faces in our neighborhood. Too bad they didn't have their voter registration cards displayed, because they turned out to mostly be darned conservative people of color. But, that's OK. That's diverse, too. The worst thing here is the segregation of poor Mexican-Americans and illegals--the people who have little education and don't speak a lot of English. They don't get the same level of services that other areas, including the ones with lots of Asian immigrants, get (we even have a shiny new "Chinatown" consisting of mostly Vietnamese people). But my kids go to school with people whose parents came from all over the world (mostly engineers, though). We have lived next door to black people for 11 years. Tuba Boy's debate partner's parents are from India, and his main attraction is his delicious vegetarian lunches. We see the neighboring Muslin family holding meetings in their home and are NOT afraid. We know them!

So, I guess it's no wonder I had no clue there were Sundown Towns in the US today. I feel sad for the residents. They'll have a lot harder time learning that people are people underneath their exteriors. They won't get to have the fun and diverse potlucks we get at our church, or I got in graduate school. They won't get to have their children exposed to different family traditions that are equally good as their own, just not the same. Ugh.

Interestingly, I have read in the past about all-black towns that there were in the southern US. Many are abandoned now, but it was an interesting phenomenon begun during the Reconstruction time. Odd I hadn't heard of the white versions. I can see the attraction--to be around people like yourself can be comforting. I do understand why families can want to live in areas where there are plenty of others of similar backgrounds or traditions. It keeps the community strong (here in my neighborhood, we have lots and lots of Mormons, for example--we are near their place of worship). And I know how painful it can be when a formerly homogeneous population begins to diversify (see Ireland now, or many parts of Europe for that matter).

All I am intending here is to raise awareness and to suggest you read the interesting article in the UU World. If you are in the US, have you ever lived in a place like this?


DianeS said...

Don't feel too bad. I love history and my mother did, too, and I had never heard of them. I first heard about them from our minister's spouse, who grew up in one. The article says that very few of these places existed in the South and I believe it. Really, here in the South, blacks and white lived sort of together for centuries before the Civil War. The North had fewer people of color, especially in the Midwest, where most of these places seemed to be. But to those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s, when things began finally to change, it really is shocking, isn't it?

Shannon said...

I have lived in at least one town in SE Texas that was like this and another that I strongly suspect of being one. I was not familiar with the term, although I have heard that slogan.

The town where I lived from age 4 to 12 had a strong KKK presence and was so notorious for being racist and backward (even compared to the other little quietly racist, backward towns around it) that I was (and still am) ashamed to admit that I lived there.

Although there were at least a few Hispanic families living there, the town was predominantly white and did not begin to become segregated until the early 90's (and there was a big stink about that).

Diversity (ethnic or otherwise) is still not tolerated -- let alone celebrated -- by many of these wretched little towns to this day. It's sad, but all too true.

Shannon said...

Edit: the above comment should read: "and did not begin to become DEsegregated until the early 90's..."
(what a difference a prefix can make!)

Suna said...

Thank you so much, Diane and Shannon, for sharing your very interesting insights. I am really fascinated.