Sundown Towns, a Historical Look

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Ed Gordon discusses the historical significance of so-called "sundown towns," some of which are now promoting inclusiveness. Guests include Jim Hunt, president of the National League of Cities, and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree.

ED GORDON, host:

Towns like Bluffton say they're working to promote communities of inclusiveness, but what does that really mean, and will people of color come? Jim Hunt is president of the National League of Cities based in Washington, D.C. He heads up the group's partnership for working toward inclusive communities. Mr. Hunt joins us from West Virginia Radio in Morgantown, West Virginia.

And joining us via phone is Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree. Professor Ogletree leads the law schools' Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Gentlemen, great to have you on the program. Professor, let me start with you. Give us a quick historical view, of you will, of these, quote, sundown towns.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Harvard Law School; Head of Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice): Well, thanks, Ed. As you know, when I was doing research on the Tulsa race riots from 1921, I was astounded to learn of the literally hundreds of towns - now we've discovered thousands of towns around America - in the South, but not exclusively in the South, where blacks were told leave before sundown. There were sirens, there were notices, and the consequences of staying in those towns were death or other serious bodily injury.

And the good news is that that is largely historical, but it's a frightening sense that people could not live in the community. They could work there, they could visit there, but they couldn't' be there after dark because of the strongly held feelings about segregation. And sundown towns were just that: if you're black, get out of town before the sun goes down.

GORDON: Mm hmm. Jim Hunt, while those sirens may have gone away, there are certainly still areas in this country where when the sun goes down, minorities know that this is an area - a region you should not be in. That continues today.

Mr. JIM HUNT (President, National League of Cities): Right, Ed. And I think when we look around - and, obviously, the inclusive agenda is a broader agenda than just race, but clearly race plays a very significant part in the program.

GORDON: Mr. Hunt, why are we seeing this sense of inclusiveness? Is it totally altruistic? Are there financial benefits to these cities? Why are we seeing this rush now to try to move to include minorities?

Mr. HUNT: Well, and I think when we look across the board of what's happening across the country - when we look at Dr. Richard Florida's work on the rise of the creative class, and some of the economic development needs of cities throughout America - we recognize that if we're not going to be inclusive, we're going to suffer from an economic development perspective.

And also the fact of just the basic fact that it's the right thing to do. And I think when we look across that broad spectrum of what inclusiveness includes, you know, we see that - we kind of ask the question, who should be excluded from our communities? And I think as you engage in that debate in your communities, you'd find out that, obviously, there is some people that feels that should be an exclusive, gated community still in America. But I think that thinking communities and progressive communities are handling that in an entirely different way.

GORDON: Charles Ogletree, we see a number of other efforts to bring people of color into communities. Recently, three Ohio mayors band together to try to show that they are in unison in welcoming people who heretofore had not been welcomed in these cities.

Talk to me, if you will, about the communities. The lay people often in these communities, do they go along with this as political favor? Or do they come kicking and screaming often?

Prof. OGLETREE: I think there's a skepticism, Ed, that's been developed because of historical concerns. And I applaud Jim Hunt and what the National League of Cities has done. But for everyday citizens - and they were largely African- Americans, but now they're Hispanics and other immigrants and foreigners who face this sense - the phenomena is greater than simply sundown towns. What we see now in urban American, in many of these urban communities is that folks are locked in - which means everything closes at six anyway. The vitality of the cities - of many major urban cities has been damaged. It's been moved to the suburbs. And when you talk about the suburbs, they're locked out. They can't live there, they often can't work there.

So the National League of Cities is doing tremendous work. But if it doesn't change America's urban cities like Detroit and Chicago and Philadelphia and parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco and Houston and Dallas and Washington, D.C., then we're not going to solve the problem.

And I like what they're doing, but it would be very great if we could see the urban areas get some benefit and people of color feel that they're welcome anywhere. That's not the case. It's not just race and ethnicity, it's really economic discrimination. The sense is that people of color are going to bring crime, they're going to bring drugs, they're going to bring down the economy on the property values - that's the larger phenomenon that I hope NLC will confront and take on some of these urban cities who need to have something happening after 6:00. Because if not, it becomes a corollary of the sundown towns of the last century.

GORDON: Jim Hunt, what about that? What about attacking that issue? Because a city like Detroit, for instance, after 5:00 p.m. downtown -outside of a hockey game and a couple of other small restaurants here and there - it's hard to find whites on the streets of Detroit downtown.

Mr. HUNT: Absolutely. And I think Charles have been reading some of my e-mails, some of the little heated e-mails that comes back after leading a program on inclusivity. But when I think when you look around and you see some examples that are the good examples, as in Vancouver, Canada recently. And they have had this resurgence of housing in the urban center.

And I think that is - housing is the key to this. Because as Charles pointed out, you know, I travel all over the country. I was in Tempe, Arizona, and the average person cannot afford to live in Tempe, Arizona. So it makes no difference whether it's race, whether it's culture or whatever, you end up having these exclusive communities.

And I think that's one driving fact that we're looking at is to have these community discussions and figure out where we're going to have the workforce and affordable housing in our communities. Because in certain areas of the country, it is literally impossible for persons who are in the workforce that are doing the services that are needed in communities to actually live in a community. And to segregate these folks outside of the centers where the economy is driven just seems wrong.

And it also - I think what built America strong was that fact that we had - in my own case as a poor kid in Clarksburg, West Virginia, I didn't have to go far to find the rich people in Clarksburg, West Virginia. I could walk down to a neighborhood and cut somebody's grass and learn the economics and learn how to be a success.

And many of our young people today that are stuck in communities of poverty clearly don't have that lifeline out, and that's something we have to address and that has to be addressed through community-driven decisions.

GORDON: All right. Jim Hunt is president of the National League of Cities, and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree is founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Gentlemen, thanks.

Mr. HUNT: Thank you.

Prof. OGLETREE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, a special Roundtable. It's hard to find jazz on the radio today. Why is that, and what does it mean for the art form? That's up next.

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