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The Secret History of New England’s Sundown Towns

“Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark” reads the faded road sign, an artifact on display at the Tubman African American Museum in Georgia.

The sign was found in Connecticut outside of a sundown town – a municipality that prevented African-Americans or other minorities from lingering after dark.

A sundown town sign found in Connecticut

A sundown town sign found in Connecticut

James Loewen, a sociologist who taught at the University of Vermont, discovered thousands of sundown towns throughout America, including New England. Beginning in the 1890s, African-Americans were driven out of New England’s rural communities and small towns into urban ghettoes, Loewen contends.

Through violence and intimidation, through restrictive covenants and mortgage practices, small towns kept out not just black people, but Jews, Catholics, Greeks, Italians, Indians, even trade unionists and gays.

Great Migration

Some New England counties drove out their entire African-American populations at a time when the U.S. population was growing.  From 1890 to 1940, many African Americans who lived in rural areas of New England were forced to move to cities.

From 1890 to 1930, the U.S. black population increased 60 percent. Between 1915 and 1930, more than a million African-Americans moved from the South to the North. And yet entire counties in New England became whiter.

In Maine, for example, only two of the state’s 16 counties had fewer than 10 blacks in 1890. By 1930, there were five. Writes Loewen, in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism14 Maine counties had at least 18 African Americans. By 1930, only nine did. There were five black people living in Lincoln County in 1930, where there had been 26 in 1890. Hancock County had 30,000 people in 1930, but only three were black. Forty years earlier, there had been 56.

In Vermont, there were no all-white counties in until 1930. New Hampshire had no all-white counties in 1890, but two in 1930.

Rise of the Klan

Keeping out African-Americans wasn’t a 19th or 20th century phenomenon. In 1717, Town Meeting in New London, Conn., voted against free blacks living in the town or owning land anywhere in the colony.

But in the 1890s, racism deepened in the North as memories of the Civil War faded. Waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Canada and southern Europe moved into Yankee mill towns, sparking the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the early 1920s, the Klan began to hold regular meetings and cross-burnings in small towns in eastern and central Massachusetts.  A Klan rally near Montpelier, Vt., in 1925 drew 10,000.

The Klan in London, Ontario

The Klan in London, Ontario

The Klan spread rapidly in Maine, with 15,000 showing up at the state convention in 1923. The first daylight KKK parade in the United States was held in Milo, Maine, in 1923, and others soon followed.

In 1925, The Washington Post estimated there were more than a half-million Klansmen in New England, with 150,141 in Maine and more than 370,000 across the other New England states.

Though Klan membership fell almost as quickly as it grew in New England, the KKK left a legacy of sundown towns. Their history is rarely told. Loewen collected anecdotes about places where minorities were afraid to spend the night.

  • Italian stonecutters who quarried in Portland, Conn., were told to be on the other side of the Connecticut River by sundown. The bridge would be left open at night so no one could pass over it.
  • One resident of the Wollaston neighborhood of Quincy, Mass., remembers an incident from the mid-1950s:  "My father, a jazz musician, had some of his musician friends over one night for some jamming. Most of the musicians involved were black. The next day, a delegation of neighbors...came by to register their disapproval that my father had blacks in their neighborhood after dark."
  • A similar story was told about Burlington, Conn., about an African-American family friend from Waterbury who came over to play cards. “He always made a habit of leaving before sunset and if he could not, he would spend the night on the couch. … the reason he needed to stay was because earlier years, whenever he would drive in or out of town, the police would stop and harass him, detain him for questioning, or pull him over and run his license and plates. Comments were made to the effect that being a black man in Burlington after dark, he couldn't be up to any good..."

Starting in the 1930s, the Negro Motorist Green Book guided African-American travelers away from sundown towns. Black travelers typically carried blankets, food and cans of gasoline in their cars.

Restrictive Covenants

In 1905, restrictive covenants began appearing in property deeds. They typically stated, "No portion of these premises shall ever be sold to or occupied by anyone other than members of the white or Caucasian race." Then they often added, "Nothing in the foregoing shall preclude live-in servants."

The exception rather than the rule: Jackie Robinson at home in Stamford with his wife Rachel, sons David, Jackie Jr.. and Sharon.

The exception rather than the rule: Jackie Robinson at home in Stamford with his wife Rachel, sons David, Jackie Jr.. and Sharon.

A 1940 deed for a development called High Ledge Homes in West Hartford, Conn., said, "No person of any race except the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot.” There was one exception for people of a different race: the owner’s employees.

Manchester-By-The-Sea in Massachusetts only allowed blacks and Jews to live within its borders if they were servants.

The federal government encouraged sundown towns through discriminatory mortgage practices. Between 1934 and 1968, 98 percent of loans approved by the federal government in Connecticut were made to white, non-Hispanic borrowers.

Anti-Semitism

In 1954, baseball great Jackie Robinson was able to buy a house in Stamford, Conn., with help from prominent white people.

He was the exception in suburban New England, where Jews couldn’t buy homes.

In Nahant, Mass., a property deed written in the 1920s contained language forbidding the owner to sell the house to Greeks or Jews. (Nahant, ironically, now has the densest population of Greek descendants in New England.)

sundown towns movieIn 1922, the Sharon, Conn., chamber of commerce distributed a leaflet asking homeowners not to sell to Jews. A realtor in Greenwich, Conn., sent a memo saying, “From this date on, when anyone telephones us in answer to an ad in any newspaper and their name is, or appears to be Jewish, do not meet them anywhere."

Darien, Conn., did not let Jews spend the night within its borders. That practice was exposed in the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement  co-starring Paul Revere’s descendent Anne Revere. Gregory Peck played a reporter pretending to be Jewish to write a story on anti-Semitism.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of racecolorreligionsex, family status or national origin.

Attitudes were harder to change.

In 1973, all-white Ashby, Mass., voted at Town Meeting 148 to 79 against inviting people of color into town.

Photos: Darien, Conn., via Wikimedia.

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