S2 – Blog 03: Sundown Towns: What We Learned About Our Own Town

These past few weeks, we’ve been learning about sundown towns and the impact they’ve had on rural America today (Check out the links below). We were stunned to learn that our informed expert Dr. James Loewen (author of Sundown Towns & Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”) spent many hours conducting research for his book right here in Forgottonia.  Although Dr. Loewen lives on the east coast and conducted research throughout the country, a large portion of his work focused on his home state of Illinois; including the communities of western Illinois, collectively known as Forgottonia.  Dr. Loewen poured over census records, studied maps, and visited with local historians, librarians, and anyone else willing to speak to him. We recommend you get a hold of the book to read for yourself. We’d also encourage you to check out the sundown town database on Loewen’s own website linked here – Loewen’s website – Sundown Towns Database.

Our town, Cuba, is situated in Fulton County located in Western Illinois. While Dr. Loewen was not able to find conclusive evidence that would characterize our community as a sundown town, what he did learn prompted him to categorize us as a “probable” sundown town.

History of course is an argument and much of his data comes from oral tradition, which can be a tricky methodology. In fact, concerning methodology, Dr. Loewen is no stranger to critiques of his work. From what we gather, much of the criticisms based on his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, possibly centers on an over-dependence on oral tradition.  The Washington Post, for instance, remarked that the research in the book was often vague.

Yet while it’s important to raise questions about methodology, we should understand that communities don’t exactly document whether they were a sundown town or not. Some reports in Cuba, for instance, claim that we had a sundown town sign at the edge of town identifying who was and who was not welcome. Yet no photos, records, or documents of any kind seem to exist to corroborate this claim. Still, we are slow to dismiss this claim because if by chance it did exist, perhaps it was unlikely to be documented; especially in an era before social media.   

Loewen also mentions a local WW2 prison camp in Western Illinois called Camp Ellis. For many natives of Forgottonia, it was possible that their first interaction with African Americans might’ve been with troops who were serving at the prison camp. Apparently during this time, many of the surrounding communities developed a reputation for not welcoming African American soldiers inside local establishments. It goes without saying that this was an unfortunate lesson to learn about the community you love, especially considering the fact that African American soldiers served honorably representing the same country and fighting against the same enemy.  Regrettably, it appears our community in Cuba was not unique in this treatment of African American soldiers.

Fortunately not all the research was cringe worthy. It appears that after WW2, Cuba was blessed to learn a very meaningful lesson about human dignity.  This lesson was initiated when an African American farmer and his family moved into town. According to residents, the family was a much needed addition to our town. The children were well-liked and their behavior helped change the town’s attitude. In fact, it’s thought that our town actually took down the supposed sundown town sign that was meant as a warning to motorists unfamiliar with the community. Although we have yet to authenticate this story (perhaps searching county records, speaking with local historians, nursing home residents, etc. would be a good start), we are hopeful in the wisdom it offers.  

So while further inquiry will always be needed to discover the truth behind oral traditions, the presence of local narratives nonetheless serve as reminders that every community has a collective consciousness and soul that transcend time.  It is foolish to think that past injustices don’t impact the spirit of the community today.  The presence of these stories, with whatever amount of truth there may be, will serve to heal, to teach, and to help us find a way forward.

Be sure to join us as we seek to learn all we can about this topic. Subscribe to our blog and get all new content sent directly to your inbox.  Follow us on social media (we are on Twitter and Facebook) and search iTunes or wherever you find podcasts to subscribe to our Forgottonia Project podcast.

Additional links to our research over Sundown Towns:

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