Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Was Maynard a “Sundown Town?” Part 1

Was Maynard a “sundown town?” Let’s start with “No.” In the strictest sense of the definition, Maynard was never an all-white town that practiced a form of racial segregation by excluding people of color after sunset, the idea being that such people could work in and patronize the businesses in town during the day, but had to be gone be nightfall. This was accomplished by combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation and violence, enforced by (White) police and threat of vigilante action. Black travelers were guided by the Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-66) as to where it was safe to stop at gas stations, restaurants and places to stay at night.

Image of sign used on the cover of
James W. Loewen’s book “Sundown Towns”

The most common late nineteenth and twentieth century occurrences were in the southeast states that had made up the Confederacy during the Civil War. These states had large percentages of Black people – freed slaves and their descendants – who lived in Black-only neighborhoods on the fringes of White-only towns and cities. However, there were many places outside the Deep South that enacted similar restrictions, not only against Blacks, but also Native Americans, Mexicans, or Chinese brought in as railroad laborers in the West.

The U.S. history of limiting when people of color could be permitted to be out in public dates back much earlier. The earliest legal restrictions on the nighttime activities and movements of Blacks and other ethnic minorities were in the colonial era, when slavery was legal in all 13 colonies (Massachusetts 1640-1780). Coastal cities such as Boston and New York had Black populations on the order of 10 percent – a mix of Free Blacks and slaves. Rather than a slave-only curfew, laws were written applying to everyone of color. The general court and legislative assembly of New Hampshire passed "An Act to Prevent Disorders in the Night" in 1714: “Whereas great disorders, insolencies and burglaries are oft times raised and committed in the night time by Indian, Negro, and Molatto Servants and Slaves to the Disquiet and hurt of her Majesty's subjects, No Indian, Negro, or Molatto is to be from Home after 9 o'clock.” Notices emphasizing and re-affirming the curfew were published in The New Hampshire Gazette in 1764 and 1771.

From that era to the current day, semi-permanent or short-term curfews have been enacted in neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by people of color, cities have passed (and repealed) “stop and frisk” laws, and “Driving While Black” has had risks that all too frequently have escalated from a traffic stop to a driver death. All of this represents legislated harassment, all enforced by a predominantly White police force, designed to limit places where people of color can be in public without fear. Curfew laws potentially criminalize people of color who want to safely use the same public spaces – streets, sidewalks and parks – as White people.

James W. Loewen, author of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” (2006), adds a broader definition: “towns that were all White on purpose.” This ranged from driving out by violence the resident people of color, a horrific example being the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, to creation of new communities that were all White by design. A famous example of the latter was Levittown, on Long Island, New York. The company Levitt & Sons, Inc., built the district as a planned community of thousands of identical homes, primarily for returning World War II veterans, between 1947 and 1951. Clause 25 of the standard lease agreement signed by the first residents of Levittown, stated in capital letters and bold type that the house could not "be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race." Same applied to house purchases. Seventy years later, according to the 2020 federal census, the Levittown population is 52,000 and 1.2 percent Black in a state that is 15.7 percent Black. Darien, Connecticut prohibited sale of houses to Blacks and Jews. Today, 0.9 percent Black in a state that is 10.7 percent Black.

At a federal level, laws were passed to restrict Chinese immigration in the West. Early waves of immigrants were men hired to work in gold mining, railroad construction and as farm labor. The Page Act of 1875 prohibited the immigration of Chinese women. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888 expanded that to men, and ended the pathway to becoming citizens. The Scott Act of 1888 stated that Chinese who were legally in the U.S. but left to visit China (primarily meaning men visiting their wives and children, to whom they had been sending money) could not return. The acts remained in effect until 1943, after which immigration was by quota.

The continuation of this column in next week’s newspaper will present a possible gray area to the “Sundown Town” definition: New England towns that had no or few Black residents for demographic reasons rather than organized discriminatory policies and actions. For an early example, during the late Colonial era, west of Boston (with its 10 percent Black population (free plus slaves)), well-off towns such as Concord and Sudbury had slave populations on the order of one percent. Stow, poorer, was home to one slave. Maynard did not yet exist. After the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1780, the rural percentages decreased toward zero as the children of freed slaves moved to Boston or other cities with a significant Black population.

Mark noted that he grew up in a New Jersey community that was 100 percent White until the mid-1960s; now 1.8 percent Black versus all of NJ at 15 percent.

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