Blogs > Jim Loewen > History of Sundown Suburbs Threatens the Existence of Diverse Suburbs

Jan 7, 2014

History of Sundown Suburbs Threatens the Existence of Diverse Suburbs

Across the United States, diverse suburbs are in trouble. In 1990, Dolton (pronounced "DAWL-ton"), for example, southeast of Chicago, was nicely diverse: 58 percent white, 38 percent black, and 5.5 percent Hispanic. (1) By 2010, however, Dolton was 97 percent black. Today Cleveland Heights, just east of Cleveland, struggles to avoid the same fate; the 2010 census reports it to be 50 percent white, 42.5 percent black, 4 percent Asian, and 3.5 percent other. While African Americans per se are not the problem, when suburbs go overwhelmingly black, they lose prestige, even within the black community. Then they lose the ability to attract buyers, so housing prices slide. Then property taxes slide, as do municipal services, and a downward spiral ensues.

The residents of diverse suburbs want them to stay diverse. Some have, most famously Oak Park, just west of Chicago. Diverse suburbs concoct all kinds of strategies to stay diverse. Cleveland Heights, for example, does not supply its demographic data at its website, hoping to entice would-be purchasers by focusing on amenities and activities. Some diverse suburbs have forbidden “for sale” signs, hoping to forestall blockbusting. Others, including Oak Park, have engaged in more elaborate schemes.

The main problem that diverse suburbs face as they try to stay diverse is not located within the diverse suburbs themselves, however, but in former sundown suburbs. Sundown suburbs are communities that for decades were "all-white" on purpose. (2)

Around Chicago, sundown suburbs included predominantly working-class towns like Cicero, middle-class towns like Oak Park, and upper-class towns like Kenilworth. Some of Chicago's diverse suburbs, such as Oak Park, now famously diverse, started as all-white sundown suburbs. So did some suburbs that are now majority black, such as Dolton. Sundown suburbs are often racially unstable. After all, part of their community ideology had been, blacks hurt property values, are often criminal, etc., so we must keep them out. "Naturally," then, as soon as more than a handful of black households move in, whites flee.

Home in Kenilworth, Illinois. Via Flickr.

Of course, when sociologists say "naturally," we mean that the causes are historical, indeed are so buried in our past that most of us just assume it must be that way. For suburbs to be white while inner-city neighborhoods were black was hardly “natural.” On the contrary, between about 1905 and 1968, about 80 percent of all suburbs of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other northern cities went sundown. Various mechanisms, from restrictive covenants to blatant violence, achieved this result. The federal government famously invented three sundown suburbs itself: Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin.

Many sundown suburbs remain overwhelmingly white today. For example, Joseph Sears founded Kenilworth, just beyond Evanston on Chicago's North Shore, with four guiding restrictions:

1. Large lots....
2. High standards of construction ...
3. No alleys.
4. Sales to Caucasians only (meant to exclude Jews too). (3)

Today, Kenilworth still has not a single African American household. One black family did live there for twelve years, even after whites burned a cross on their lawn.

Unfortunately, Kenilworth is the richest and most prestigious suburb of Chicago. "Unfortunately," because many white families do not move to Kenilworth because it is a sundown town. They move there to share in its prestige. In the process, however, they undermine the efforts by interracial towns to stay interracial. Subtly, "interracial" comes to connote "working class" or even "struggling," while "white" connotes prestige, of course. 

Incidentally, Kenilworth's wealth does not explain its racial makeup. Almost 7,000 black families in the Chicago area have more annual income than the median Kenilworth family. Yet not one of these families has chosen to live in Kenilworth. Surely that is due to Kenilworth's reputation as a sundown town, along with its continuing whiteness.

Please note that in this discussion I use Kenilworth as a synecdoche for all the former sundown suburbs in the Chicago area -- and across the U.S. -- that remain overwhelmingly white today. How does their whiteness impact interracial suburbs? When whites move to Kenilworth -- from Oak Park, for example -- they make it harder for Oak Park to stay stably interracial. Sometimes real estate agents abet the process, discouraging blacks (and Jews) from buying in Kenilworth on the grounds that "you won't be happy there, you'll stick out like a sore thumb." Or, as the head of Kenilworth Realty said to me, "Birds of a feather flock together." Many agents sincerely believe that they are doing African Americans a service by telling them the racial reality of sundown and former sundown suburbs.

As the map shows, sundown suburbs are often miles away from the place where the battle for integration seems to be taken place ... and often seems to be lost. Kenilworth is miles from Dolton and the other south suburbs that are now trending black. Nevertheless, Kenilworth -- along with Chicago's other sundown suburbs -- is the problem.

Our usual means of ensuring open housing, such as paired-testing, is not really relevant to the problems posed by sundown suburbs (and by independent sundown towns, for that matter). Testing is a good way to identify individuals -- landlords, home sellers, real estate agents -- who discriminate against minority would-be residents. Sundown towns are and have been all-white by community policy, formal or informal. As a result, sundown towns pose problems that traditional testing cannot uncover. These problems lie "upstream" and "downstream" of the actual process of renting or buying. Hence they lie upstream and downstream of the testing process itself. They lie in the corporate history of sundown towns.

"Upstream" Problems

Some landlords, home sellers, and real estate agents in a sundown town are willing to rent or sell to African Americans. Indeed, most may be. Some property owners and agents may even be pleased to do so, to help their community transcend its racial past.

Precisely owing to that racial past, however, few African Americans may seek housing in the community. The town or county has built a reputation as an entity, based on policies and incidents stretching back for decades. It is not easy for acts by individuals to undo this corporate character. Indeed, the town's actions as an entity, along with the reputation they have built up, may preclude the possibility of nondiscriminatory acts by individual would-be sellers or renters. Would-be fair-minded landlords, for example, cannot rent to African Americans if none ask.

"Downstream" Problems

After a landlord, home seller, or real estate agent in a sundown town rents or sells to an African American family, community actions or acts by individual members of the community may undo the occupancy. For example, black children may get called "nigger" when they go to school. Police may follow, stop, and question family members or relatives and friends who visit them. Or a handful of thugs may burn a cross on their lawn or throw rocks through a window.

If the town as an entity does not provide police protection, if the mayor does not make a strong statement supporting the rights of people of all races to live in the community, and if neighbors do not show solidarity with the beleaguered newcomers, then they may leave. Who could blame them? It follows, then, that the town's policies are at issue, not just an individual seller or even an individual thug.

Again, precisely owing to a community's racial past, police may feel they should challenge black newcomers, whose color by itself marks them as strangers. The 5 percent or 10 percent of the population who might shout racial slurs or harass school children feel empowered to do so in a sundown town. Again, testing cannot uncover this kind of "downstream" problem.


Any former sundown town that still "boasts" overwhelmingly white demography should be asked to make three statements:

1. Admit it ("We did this.")
2. Apologize for it ("We did this, and it was wrong.")
3. Proclaim they now welcome residents of all races ("We did this; it was wrong; and we don't do it any more.")

Towns must then back that third statement by action. "We have set up a racial ombudsperson." "We are hiring African Americans to end our overwhelmingly white teaching staff and police force." Etc.

Only then will the "silent majority" of willing home sellers, agents, and ordinary citizens feel empowered to speak out for open housing. Only then will people of color in the metropolitan area become convinced that it is not foolish to seek to move in. Until then, a sundown town's reputation and past policies empower precisely the wrong people not only to speak but also to act against open occupancy by people of color.

State governments and HUD need to require former sundown towns to take these steps or in other ways prove they have transcended their white supremacist past. Until they do, federal and state governments might rescind the mortgage interest exemption from income taxes for residents of confirmed sundown towns that have not changed demographically or in explicit policy. After all, while governments do want to encourage home ownership, they do not want to encourage home ownership by white people in sundown towns. The day after losing the exemption for their mortgage interest, every white homeowner in town will seek African American neighbors, just to get it back!

By whatever method, enforcement of open housing in sundown suburbs will solve many of the problems of diverse suburbs. Readers of HNN can help. By sending information on sundown towns and suburbs to me (, you will contribute to the interactive map at the sundown town website. Doing so helps towns take that first step: admit “we did this.” Steps two and three then become easier.

* * * * *

1 The total is greater than 100 percent because Hispanics who list themselves “white” or “black” rather than “other” get counted twice.

2 I place "all-white" in quotation marks because a community need not be quite all-white to be a sundown town.

3Colleen Kilner, Joseph Sears and His Kenilworth (Kenilworth: Kenilworth Historical Society, 1990), 138, 143, her italics.


Copyright James Loewen

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