One of the things we enjoyed most about Dr. James Loewen book Sundown Towns, is how he encourages readers to do their own research. This is also an outstanding opportunity to put into practice that history is something you do, not simply something you remember. Gather what evidence you can and determine for yourself if your town was a sundown town. The following blog post is advice from James Loewen about how to conduct your very own research.
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.
As mentioned in our podcast interview, Dr. James Loewen didn’t just write a book about sundown towns, he wrote THE book. He did a lot of research in small towns–especially in Illinois–which has enabled us to learn a lot about our own communities. (By the way, if you haven’t already, Loewen has a massive database on his website you should check out by following this link – Loewen’s website – Sundown Towns Database). But of all the questions we’ve asked, one stands out as most important; why does all this matter? As we lean into this question, three overall themes come to mind that address why this research matters.
When Dr. James Loewen decided he was going to research sundown towns, he figured he might find about 50 or so of these communities spread across the country. To his surprise, he claimed to uncover more than 500, and that was just in his home state of Illinois! He estimates that at its peak in 1970 there were approximately 10,000 sundown towns throughout the country. So what exactly are sundown towns?