Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jeremy Bangs's Experience with Sundown Towns

Randall Stephens

Americans born after the 1950s may not know that there ever were such things as sundown towns. James W. Loewen writes about them in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New Press, 2005). "'Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.' We equate these words with the Jim Crow South," summarizes the book's website, "but, in a sweeping analysis of American residential patterns, award-winning and bestselling author James W. Loewen demonstrates that strict racial exclusion was the norm in American towns and villages from sea to shining sea for much of the twentieth century."

Jeremy Bangs emailed me the other day about his experience of growing up in Illinois and Kansas and being all-too aware of such villages and hamlets that dotted the midwest. Bangs is the founder of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden and the author of Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009). Jeremy's father, Carl Bangs, was a leading authority on the life and theology of Jacobus Arminius. (I read his biography of Arminius when I first launched into grad school. I was hooked on history.) With Jeremy's permission, I include below his reminiscence about sundown towns.

When my father moved ca. 1952-53 from Chicago to Bourbonnais, IL, to teach religion and philosophy at Olivet Nazarene College, he first heard about the existence of such towns, including some in the immediate area. Like others on the faculty who were ordained, he sometimes was invited to preach, and, as director of the college's brass choir (which he started), he sometimes was asked to take students to perform in Sunday morning services in Nazarene churches in Illinois as fundraisers for the college.

He refused to accept invitations in towns that were known as sundown towns. He always explained that he would be happy to accept the church's invitation once the village or town had reversed its policy. He was not alone in this vocal opposition to the racist custom, and I think that he and his colleagues made this an issue that was discussed (and officially opposed) by area councils of churches. Further, we did not drive through such towns, taking the long way around, whatever that might be, when going somewhere farther away. Since most roads there were laid out in square patterns, there was always a way to drive around. I think that at least one town officially changed their policy, after being shamed from the pulpits. As I recall, that must have been Manteno, IL, because I know that it was once a sundown town but in later years we did drive through Manteno. (We moved to Kansas City in 1961.)

In Kansas City, looking for a house to buy, my parents were shocked to find out that certain suburbs excluded blacks as well as Jews. This was possible with so-called covenants in the deeds, by which a buyer obliged himself to refuse to sell to blacks or Jews. The suburbs were among those developed and operated by the J. C. Nichols Company, who also built Kansas City's Plaza. My parents refused to buy in such restricted areas and refused to buy from that company. My father also instigated legal action on this point against the J. C. Nichols Company, which led to some retaliation, although I've forgotten what form that took. I think that eventually this action resulted in the company's being forced to drop the policy and restrictive covenants, even before legal changes made them explicitly illegal. As in Illinois, my father was one among numerous clergymen who tried to bring an end to these restrictions.

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