Sundown Towns Pt.2: The Nadir

It wasn’t only towns, counties, and suburbs blacks were expelled from. Before the Nadir there were black masons, carpenters, foundry and factory workers, postal carriers, and more. After 1890, however, in both the North and South, whites pushed blacks out of these jobs. They were also pushed out of professional sports, as blacks had played major league baseball in the 1880s but the last player was forced out by 1889. In 1911, blacks were excluded from being jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. Boxing was still allowed but it served to reinforce the stereotype of black men being dangerous fighters.

It’s interesting to note that blacks were arguably treated more poorly in the North than the South after the end of the Reconstruction. In the South, whites would happily employ black folks to do any job deemed inferior. In the North, on the other hand, the attitude seemed to be that if blacks were so inferior why hire them at all? The lack of employment opportunities meant that many went jobless and their joblessness fed into negative stereotypes. Ironically, the worse the Nadir got, the more whites blamed blacks for it. Northern whites came to see blacks as disaffected, lazy, and dangerous. “They must not work hard enough, think as well, or have as much drive, compared to whites,” was apparently the consensus.

During the Nadir, stereotypes of white supremacy permeated all of American culture. Oddly enough, historians played a major role in this line of thought. After Reconstruction was overthrown in 1890, historians painted the era to be one of oppressed whites, “beset by violence and corruption.” The historical record became so distorted that interpretations of the Nadir in American history textbooks are still shaped by it today.

Minstrel shows, which were widely popular, perpetuated stereotypes of blacks as being ignorant, irresponsible, wide-grinning, loud-laughing, happy-go-lucky, shuffling, singing, banjo playing types that were devoid of any character traits valued among whites. In small towns across the North, where few blacks existed to correct the impression, these stereotypes were the bulk of what whites “knew” about blacks. Eventually minstrelsy gave way to vaudeville and vaudeville gave way to movies but the stereotypes remained. Unfortunately, this set the scene for, perhaps the most racist major picture ever, The Birth of a Nation in 1915. It praised the first Ku Klux Klan (1865 – 1875) as the savior of the “white race,” specifically white Southern civilization, which led to the revival of the Klan.

Worse than these spectacles, science was used to back up feelings of black inferiority with Social Darwinism, “an evolutionary rationale for the inevitability of poverty,” which gave way to eugenics. These were the ultimate way of blaming the victim. Not only was being poor their own fault but they were beyond help because they just plain had bad genes. While technically about improving genetic quality, eugenics was more about preserving white supremacy. People who found themselves targets of the eugenics movement were those who were seen as unfit for society: the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and specific communities of color like blacks, latinx, or Native Americans. Organized eugenics got its foothold in a meeting of The American Breeders Association in 1904. I wish we were talking about animal breeding. Margaret Sanger, American birth control activist who established organizations that evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was unfortunately quoted as saying “we do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”

All of this leads us back to places like Forsyth County, Georgia, where the sundown county was created by violence. That said, many of the shows or threat of violence have gone unrecorded even by local historians, much like the aforementioned story of Stockton, Missouri. Some towns were cleared out by sheer intimidation by way of massive Klan rallies. Still others created ordinances to keep blacks out of corporate limits after sundown or preventing the sale or rental of property to them. Those ordinances were, in fact, illegal but despite that, they began to appear around 1900 through 1930. Further “freezing-out” or barring blacks from establishments until they could no longer effectively live in a place was another method of creating all-white municipalities. There were also instances of town buying out their black families, or would-be residents, by offering to purchase their property from them so they wouldn’t live there. This sounds almost nicer than some of the other ways but it was made clear that they could not refuse the offer, if they did their property would just be taken either by eminent domain or condemnation.

To be continued…

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Loewen, J. (2007). Lies My Teacher Told Me. (2nd ed.) Touchstone.

Loewen, J. (2018). Sundown Towns. (2nd ed.) The New Press.

Ortiz, P. (2018). An African American and Latinx history of the United States. Beacon Press Books.

Phillips, P. (2016). Blood at the Root. W. W. Norton & Company.

Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law. Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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