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Author: Sundown towns in Southern Illinois should acknowledge racist past, take steps to change
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Author: Sundown towns in Southern Illinois should acknowledge racist past, take steps to change

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In Anna, nearly 200 demonstrate against police brutality

Jenna Gomez (left), of Cobden, and Jessica Moore, of Ullin, lead protesters down Davie Street in Anna during a rally on June 4 to protest the death of George Floyd, police brutality and racism.

The author of a well-known book exposing sundown towns — where Black people were not welcome after dark — said these communities need to take three steps: acknowledge their racist past, apologize for it and take concrete steps to change.

“First,” James W. Loewen said, “they need to admit it: Yes, we did this.”

Loewen, a sociologist and the author of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” was speaking Tuesday at a virtual forum hosted by ProPublica Illinois exploring the history and current state of sundown towns, many of which have recently hosted Black Lives Matter protests and marches for the first time in their histories.

The event also featured Logan Jaffe, an engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois, who wrote an article in November titled “The Legend of A-N-N-A: Revisiting an American town where Black people weren’t welcome after dark,” as well as Takiyah Coleman and Jessica Moore, two organizers of Anna’s first Black Lives Matter rally in June.

'Ain't No Negativity Allowed': In Anna, nearly 200 demonstrate against police brutality

Loewen said that sundown towns, many of which continue to have nearly all-White populations, can enter the recovery phase after acknowledging and apologizing for their racist pasts. But only by taking “actual steps” to change, such as by making a concerted effort to hire Black teachers, police officers and other municipal employees and to diversify the town's population. 

“Once you’ve taken those three steps, then you are no longer a sundown town — then you’ve made some real progress,” Loewen said.

Loewen said this work is the job of every sundown town in America “not just the flamboyant ones like Anna, but also the elegant suburbs like Kenilworth, Illinois, which is a beautiful suburb of Chicago — but just as much a sundown town as Anna ever was.”

In addition to his book, Loewen also continues to chronicle confirmed and suspected sundown towns on a website. There are dozens of them in Illinois, including in this region: Vienna, Benton, Steeleville, Ava, McLeansboro, Carterville, Herrin, Equality, Golconda, Cave-In-Rock, Goreville and others. Some sundown towns passed ordinances outlawing Black people after dark, or posted signs at their entrance that read, “Black people (or N-word), don’t let the sun go down on you in (insert town name).” In others, White townspeople organized on their own to send messages to Black people that they weren’t welcome by burning crosses in their yards, setting fires to homes or by mob violence.

In wake of Floyd death, rural, white Southern Illinois towns are reckoning with racist past

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Jaffe’s article explored Anna’s reputation as a sundown town, and residents’ relationship to what the town — named for its founder’s wife, Anna — was reputed to stand for: Ain’t No N------ Allowed. “Nearly everyone I met knew what Anna stands for — whether they heard it first as a ‘joke’ at school or from their grandparents or just from living here long enough,” Jaffe wrote in the article. “Most people said they wished the A-N-N-A reputation would just go away and were quick to say Anna wasn’t ‘like that’ anymore.

“Like what? I’d ask. If Anna has changed, how?”

After her article was published by ProPublica and The Atlantic magazine, Jaffe said she heard from people across the country about their experiences with sundown towns.

When Moore, Coleman and other young people from Anna and surrounding towns organized a Black Lives Matter protest in Anna in early June, they didn’t know what to expect. Some 200 people showed up to march alongside them. Coleman said it was great to see such a large, supportive crowd. Most of the individuals who joined the protest were White people. Several said they wanted to do their part to improve Anna and change its culture and reputation into a place that is welcoming rather than exclusive — and acknowledged there was still work to do.

In an acknowledgement of Anna's reputation, the protesters reclaimed Anna's unofficial acronym, chanting instead, "Ain't No Negativity Allowed." 

But Coleman and Moore noted that they have also faced backlash from some in the community for organizing the event. Facebook, in particular, has provided a forum for a barrage of negativity against them. Both young women said they are not letting it discourage them and plan to continue to push for a more inclusive society.

“It’s not just sundown towns or little towns around here,” Moore said. “It needs to be everywhere. ... Everybody needs to be aware of what is going on in their hometowns, in their cities — wherever. They need to know that racism still exists and that we can get along. We can become friends. Let’s change the world. Let’s make big things come from it.”


Southern Illinoisans hold demonstrations in response to George Floyd's death

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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