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Central Illinois Works to Change Associations With Racist Sundown Towns

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Central Illinois has a long and uncomfortable association with exclusionary "Sundown Towns", where certain groups rejected other groups, leading to racially separate - practically segregated - cities & villages.  

But a noted local author tells 25 News he believes those days are increasingly behind us.

"And of course, that sounds fine. Why shouldn't people stick together? But it immediately becomes a matter of oppressing other people. Keeping them out, keeping them away from the "together" that we're in," said James Loewen in a satellite interview from Washington D.C   

His book "Sundown Towns" was published in 2005, chronicling 'a hidden dimension of American racism'.
The phenomenon wasn't relegated to the South either with documented conflicts with blacks in Wisconsin, California, Oregon, Michigan, and others.

Whether through violent, racial cleansing or more subtle tactics, Loewen found town after town in several states across the United States that took the euphoria from the end of the bloody Civil War and quickly replaced it with animosity towards newly free black residents.

We decided to look at where we are now, with a focus on one of the better known locations near us: Pekin.
But there are plenty to choose from in Illinois alone.

"And so I'm pretty sure the exact number is, let's say, somewhere between 500 and 510 (in Illinois)," Loewen said. "I think, on the whole though, Sundown Towns are on the defensive. I think they are collapsing. They're giving up their policy."

Pekin was once home to the Chinks, their athletic mascot..

But that mascot was replaced back in 1980.
The Klu Klux Klan was active in that area, often targeting Catholics in the 1920's.

A city spokeswoman tells 25News that Pekin is more diverse now, but that is has proven difficult to shake the reputation.

"Parents, co-workers, family members will say 'You don't want to go there because..' And so that is more difficult to shift that perception," said Pamela Anderson, Community Development Director for the city of Pekin. "That's something we need to continue to work on, moving forward."

In 1989 the city started the Coalition for Equality and has been handing out children's books with more divers faces on them at education and health programs for 15 years now.
Anderson cites Unity Point Health Pekin as an employer with more people of color, along with WalMart.

But the Chamber of Commerce tells 25News they believe there are now minority owned businesses, today, in Pekin.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows Pekin is 95.4% caucasian.

But it actually more diverse than many of the other villages and cities around us. 

"I would say Pekin is on the edge of becoming a recovering Sundown Town," Loewen told 25 News. 

He says there are three moves city or town leadership should consider in order to, once and for all, shed a negative, racist image.

     1. Admit it is a part of that community's past
     2. Apologize 
     3. Pledge to ensure this city/town/village won't go backwards and return to policies of exclusion

Part of the reason for Pekin's shift may lie in Sharon Reed, the first African-American teacher at Pekin high.

She was hired in 1994 as the chorale and cultural studies director, and was surprised when administrators actively recruited her.

"So that was a very bold move for them to do that," Reed said. "I was not certain what it was going to be like. That was probably one of the largest leaps of faith I have ever taken in my life. And I have no regrets. None. I even had one student say to me, after I had been there several months, 'Mrs. Reed, I'm so confused'. And I said, "why?" And he said, 'I'm not supposed to love you the way I'm starting to love you. That was not supposed to happen.'  So the students and I -  both - let our guards down. And when we let our guards down, magical things happened. And just wonderful relationships (were formed) that will probably be lifelong relationships."

Reed would teach and nurture there for seven years, commuting, rather than relocating.

"I decided to make that move for what I felt like I needed to do. But I was not at all certain that I wanted my children to make that same move," Reed said. "We go where we see people who look like us. People who have the same interests as we do. And when we don't see that in other communities, what is there to draw us there?" 

She would eventually take a promotion within District 150, across the bridge, in the more diverse city of Peoria.

"I am grateful for the experience that I had while I was teaching in Pekin," Reed said. "And I still have a very good relationship with many of those students today. And their parents." 

So the question remains: are the cities or villages around greater Peoria Sundown Towns?

Take a look at  some of the most recent population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau as of July 2015:
Peoria                   115,847     61.7% White     26.4%  African-American     5.5% Asian     5.6 % Hispanic
Pekin                     33,905       95.4% White        2.1%    African-American      0.4% Asian     1.9% Hispanic
Creve Coeur         5,652         97.3% White        0.8%  African-American        0% Asian         0.1% Hispanic
Germantown Hills 3,480         94.3 % White        0.2% African-American        2.7% Asian     1.6% Hispanic
Metamora             3,454          94.7% White         0.1% African-American        2.7%  Asian     1.7% Hispanic 
Eureka                  5,704          96.4 % White        1.2 % African-American       0.3% Asian       2.5% Hispanic
Pontiac                 12,085        86% White            11.3% African-American      0.1% Asian      5.4% Hispanic
Morton                  17,174         95.8 %  White      1.3% African-American        1.2% Asian       3.2% Hispanic
Bartonville             6,438          98.9% White         0.4% African-American        0 % Asian         2.2 %  Hispanic
East Peoria          23,136        93.6% White         2.1 % African-American       1.6% Asian       1.8% Hispanic

     Here are some of the questions to consider asking if you're wondering if your town could be considered a Sundown Town:

  1.                Does your area have a history of posting signs on the outer limits, warning people of color "not to let the sun set on them" in that town/village/city?
  2.                Are there any pictures documenting this sign(s)?
  3.                Does the US Census Bureau show any people of color in your area?
  4.                Do the schools employ any minority teachers and/or educate minority students?
  5.                What do you see when you look around? Any similar faces? All similar? Any variation?
  6.                How many minority-owned businesses are around you?
  7.                Is the city/village/county council representative of the population?

Here are some further thoughts from Loewen's website: 
And a list of suspected Sundown Towns in Ilinois as compiled by Mr. Loewen:


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