As Prof. Ervin Beck’s letter stated in Wednesday’s edition of the News, I inadvertently perpetuated a local legend in my Sept. 4 letter (“Two steps toward civil discourse”). I said that Marian Anderson, an internationally renowned African American singer, “needed to stay at the Hotel Elkhart” after performing at Goshen College in 1958 because of Goshen’s “‘sundown law’ tradition.”
In fact, as Prof. Beck clarified, the GC Lecture-Music Series Committee in the late 1950s customarily arranged for overnight accommodations at the Hotel Elkhart for all its honored guests. Steve Nolt, a GC history professor, notes that a few years ago a student doing a History Seminar paper went through the Lecture-Music Series files and “determined that all lecture-music guests, including all white guests, stayed in Elkhart.”
There’s a bigger picture here, however, and some backstory.
In doing additional research and reflection on this issue and related matters, I’ve learned that Goshen—from about 1900 (give or take a decade) until the 1960s—was one of approximately 100 Indiana municipalities that were considered “sundown towns.”
In his 2005 book titled Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Harvard-trained sociologist Dr. James Loewen defines a sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it.” The means of exclusion included:
• Threats of violence
• Vandalism of vehicles and other personal property
• Racist verbal harassment
• Profiling and arrest by local police
• Restrictive property deeds
• Social ostracism, especially from schools, churches and community clubs
• Refusal of service in commercial establishments
• Signs at city limits
According to Loewen, Goshen shared this notoriety with thousands of towns, cities, suburbs and counties throughout the United States (especially in the Midwest) from about 1890 until deep into the 20th century. Loewen also identifies Wakarusa as a second sundown town in Elkhart County.
In a 2008 Christian Century review of Loewen’s book, Nolt agrees with the author that sundown towns were a form of ethnic cleansing, which also sometimes involved Jews, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans. But African Americans bore the brunt of the practice.