The 'sundown town' past of Effingham and other communities

James Loewen the author of "Sundown Towns" and longtime sociologist is scheduled to speak tonight at Lake Land College. Bill Grimes photo

George Mette remembers when African-Americans were not allowed in Effingham after dark.

"The Lions Club put on a Labor Day pancake breakfast, and the Aunt Jemima pancake people sent a black lady to portray Aunt Jemima that day," recalled the longtime area businessman. "But I also remember the Lions Club got the word she could not stay overnight. This was in the early '50s."

Times have changed from the days when so-called "sundown towns" refused to allow minorities within their borders when the sun went down. Dr. James Loewen, an expert on the subject, is scheduled to speak about his research Thursday evening at Lake Land College.

The author of "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism," Loewen said such policies were rampant during mid-century America in all areas outside the South.

Examples of the practice in Effingham are cited throughout his book, published in 2005 and available at the Effingham Public Library. One of his sources claims the movements of African-Americans within the city's borders were even restricted during the day.

"It was well known any black people arriving in town were not to venture beyond the block the bus station or train station were in," Loewen quotes researcher Michelle Tate.

Tate reported that one older Effingham resident told her police patrolled the train and bus stations to make sure African-Americans did not leave those premises.

Lake Land history instructor David Seiler, who lives in Effingham, said bringing Loewen to campus is part of a larger effort by the college to increase the level of ethnic diversity on campus. Seiler is a member of the college's Inclusion and Diversity Education Task Force.

"We believe that diversity is a part of college life," Seiler said. "But we have a pretty homogenous student population. Diversity is something our area needs to have on its radar screen."

It's been on Loewen's radar screen for nearly his entire life.

"Although I grew up in Decatur, ringed by sundown towns, I never knew it as a kid," Loewen said in an interview via email. "I thought black folks were just showing good judgment by not living in towns like Niantic, Villa Grove and the like."

But then Loewen went away to college in Northfield, Minnesota. He said it was during his time at Carleton College than he first learned about communities that banned people of color from their environs after dark.

Because he grew up in Illinois, he thought he would do most of his research in the Land of Lincoln.

"I thought I would uncover maybe 10 in Illinois and 50 nationwide," he said. "I had no idea. I am now at 507 sundown towns in Illinois alone, which is about 70 percent of all the towns in Illinois."

Loewen said he found similar proportions in other northern and western states.

In his book, Loewen also quotes David Blair, whose father worked in the Greyhound station cafeteria in Effingham during the mid-1960s.

"He would sometimes give black bus drivers a two block ride to the Benwood Hotel," Blair says in the book. "White bus drivers could just walk to it from the station, but black drivers had to call a cab and wait longer for the cab to show than the walk would have been."

Loewen singled out Effingham's sundown history in a 2006 article for the History News Network at George Mason University in Virginia.

"Before 1950, Effingham posted the notorious sundown signs, and while they came down by 1960, the town's policy didn't change. African-Americans were prohibited beyond the bus station and the train station," Loewen wrote.

In interviews for this story, several area residents recall being told that a sign proclaimed Effingham's unwillingness to welcome African-Americans after sundown.

"I heard Effingham was a sundown town and that they even had a sign by where the new high school is now," said Elsie Gray, of Altamont. That sign would have been on U.S. 40 at the west end of town.

Loewen said towns with that kind of history suffer from what he calls "second-generation sundown town problems." He said they're often characterized by all-white police forces, teaching staffs and public employees, and adds that such a monolithic situation harms the larger society.

Loewen said he encourages American communities with sundown pasts to adopt what he calls the "Loewen Three-Step Program."

"Admit it, apologize and state, 'We don't do it anymore,' and that last statement has to have teeth," he said.

Effingham Mayor Jeff Bloemker said the days of Effingham being a sundown town are long past.

"I would tell you as an official representative of the city of Effingham, it would amaze anybody on the City Council if we still had such an ordinance," the mayor said. "We would vociferously refute any reference and quickly take action to rectify that situation."

Local historian Delaine Donaldson, president of the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Association, said he has no recollection of "sundown town" behavior during his youth in the late 40s and 1950s.

"I've never seen any hard evidence of Effingham being a sundown town, but there were people in that time who were hostile to people of color," Donaldson said. "But it was a private kind of hostility rather than anything official."

Jeanne Sutter of Shumway remembers a hostile attitude toward minorities in her youth, but said it was something she never understood.

"It always amazed me how people treated people here when I was growing up because they looked different," Sutter said.

One African-American living in Effingham today said she still experiences racism from time to time. Phillis Grice, who grew up in Oklahoma during the 1970s, recalled how her boyfriend's brother told her he hated her because of the color of her skin.

"There are still people around here who are very racist," Grice said. Others, she said, seem fearful of African-Americans.

"I've seen people hurry up and lock their doors when they saw me coming," she said. "I was with two white people at the time, and we just busted out laughing.

"At first I thought, 'Are people still that ignorant?,' then I look at it and realize that if I never been around white people, I might not know how to act, either," Grice said.

Most of Grice's friends in Effingham are white. So she knows there are plenty of people who embrace diversity.

"If everybody was the same, how boring would that be?" she said. "Different shades of people make the world go around."

Loewen's talk is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Lake Land College Theatre. The event is free and open to the public.

Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, at bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com, or on Twitter @EDNBGrimes.

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