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It’s Time for Sundown Towns to Become a More Visible Part of Illinois History. But How?

If you are discussing your community’s history of racial exclusion, or if you would like to start, let us know.

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Hello, people of Illinois and people not of Illinois:

I’m heading north on the Amtrak Lincoln Service from Springfield to Chicago. It’s before 9 a.m., and I’ve already encountered more Abraham Lincoln-related memorials and municipal signage than I thought possible.

I was in Springfield this week to talk about my reporting in Anna, Illinois, and sundown towns like Anna. My talk was held at the Springfield public library — which, I must point out, is officially named Lincoln Library, The Public Library of Springfield, Illinois. It was hosted by the Sangamon County Historical Society in partnership with the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum, and, between those two organizations, the room was packed!

About 150 people came to discuss sundown towns at the Springfield public library on Feb. 18. (Logan Jaffe/ProPublica Illinois)

What particularly moved me about talking to a room of 150 or so people is that they wanted to understand how racism has shaped hundreds of communities throughout the state. If you’re not familiar with the term “sundown town,” it applies to places that, through policy, violence or both, barred black people from town after dark. There are hundreds of these communities in Illinois. As the book “Sundown Towns,” by James W. Loewen, explains, the phrase is derived from “the signs that many of [these places] formerly sported at their corporate limits — signs that usually said ‘Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in __.’”

Local historians and historical societies can sometimes be reluctant to engage, acknowledge or tell stories about the difficult or shameful parts of their community’s history. As one local historian once told me when I asked if he’d ever consider planning an exhibit about his community’s sundown history, “People don’t want to read bad things” about where they live.

I beg to differ. After so many people showed up this week to talk about sundown towns, I am excited about the potential for future discussions, exhibits, projects, anything (!) about sundown towns across Illinois.

It is time these stories become a more visible part of our state’s history. The question is: How? Whether you’re a local history buff, a genealogy whiz, a researcher, teacher, student, librarian, coffee shop owner or community organizer, I hope you’ll try to answer that question with me.

If you are already discussing your community’s history of racial exclusion, please email me. I’d love to hear about it. If you know of other similar efforts around Illinois, I’d love to hear about those as well. Or simply tell me this: How do you want to engage with this issue? What ideas do you have for how to keep discussing and addressing sundown towns in our state?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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