I’m reading an excellent book, Sunddown Towns, by James W. Loewen. He calls the Ozarks a “sundown region” because of the prevalence of sundown towns in the area and its overwhelmingly white population. During the sad period between the late 19th century and the early 20th, the white citizens in dozens of Ozark towns (like hundreds all over the country) forced African-American citizens to through largely violent methods.
This was the era when the racist film “Birth of a Nation” sparked a membership boom for the Klu Klux Klan all over the United States, which spawned years of racially motivated violence. In some ways, though, “Birth of a Nation” was only a symptom of a problem already deeply seeded into American life.
The white citizens of Harrison, Arkansas forced out its African-American citizens during a 1909 race riot. Thereafter, the citizen’s major reputation has been for its ignorance and extreme racism. A leading member of the modern incarnation of the Klan currently lives near this hamlet in Newton County, Arkansas.
The local Klan chapter famously “adopted” a stretch of highway outside Harrison several years ago. The state “highway beautification project” displayed a sign that read “This Highway Adopted by the Klu Klux Klan, Next 1 mile,” for years. The sign has been gone now for some time, but the group seems to have taken up their efforts in Missouri, where they sued to be included in the Adopt-A-Highway program.
Harrison is one of the most racist towns in the United States, there is no doubt about this. Its reputation is long and sordid, so I wasn’t surprised to see Harrison in Loewen’s listing. However, as I continued to read, I realized something that I’m ashamed I didn’t really consider before. My beloved hometown of Dover, Arkansas is, according to Loewen’s definition, a sundown town.
According to Loewen, one of the most important aspects of sundown towns is their invisibility to whites. Most whites simply don’t notice anything is wrong when they move into, or grow up in, a sundown town. The hegemony of white faces becomes the norm and so most whites simply don’t see anything abnormal about living in an all-white town. This is compounded by whites’ tendency to keep a town’s sundown status as a kind of open secret.
Loewen does an excellent job documenting his sources when he sets out to label a place “sundown.” His interviews and research are weighty and well verified. At one point, Loewen can’t pin down any documentation for a city’s reputation, but he manages to college nearly twenty verbal assertions that the place fit his definition.
If that’s a decent standard to go by, Dover is already halfway to complete verification. I heard some variation of the sentence, “Blacks shouldn’t go to Dover and definitely not after dark” more times than I can when I was growing up. There’s been at one lynching in the town, according to oral history.
That’s two for two: a reputation as a place that is unwelcoming to African-Americans and a history of racial violence.
It’s amazing to me exactly how prone I am (was?) to the very ignorance that Loewen points out. It never seemed odd to me that there were no African-Americans in town, even though I moved to Dover after years of being one of two white students in an elementary school in Little Rock. I, like many people from my hometown, just thought the area wasn’t attractive to African-Americans. Or, I believed on some level that African-Americans didn’t historically live in the area. I was completely wrong, of course.
As Loewen points out, our progress toward racial equality in this country may have come a long way. Many former sundown towns have now shifted attitudes and many African-Americans have moved into them. However, what I didn’t know was that towns like mine probably have a history of violently pushing “others” out of town. Its a history that has been ignored. I’ll never look at the demographics of the Ozarks the same way again.