Professor Stephen A. Berrey works on the history of race and culture in the United States. He is the author of Jim Crow Routines: Everyday Performances of Race and the End of Segregation in Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press), which focused on changing conceptions of race in the dawn of the civil rights era.
Recently, he’s turned his attention to the history of race in small towns—and sundown towns in particular.
Gregory Parker talked with him to learn more.
What’s a sundown town?
A sundown town is a town or suburb that is “all-white” on purpose. The phrase refers to some groups having to be out of town by sundown. Through ordinances, signs, sirens, policing, violent acts, or informal measures, people in these communities have intentionally excluded Black people, Native Americans, Latina/o people, Asian American people, and Jewish people. These practices emerged in the late-nineteenth century and some places continue to be sundown towns or suburbs in the present. These communities exist throughout the continental United States and have been especially prevalent outside the South.
How did you get involved in the Sundown Towns Project?
James (Jim) Loewen (author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong) began this research, writing a book and creating a website documenting these places. In 2019, at the Organization of American Historians conference, Jim and I ended up on the same walking tour of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. We spent much of the tour chatting about our shared research interests, and an hour later he had persuaded me to sign on to help him continue his work on sundown towns. Sadly, Jim passed away in August 2021. Since then, I’ve been directing this project.
How do you tackle a project of this magnitude?
It’s an immense challenge as there are still many towns, past and present, we haven’t yet documented, and there are other places that would benefit from additional research. We’ve had nearly a million visitors to the site in the last two years, and we encourage visitors to share what they know about towns in our database or about towns that they believe should be in our database. I also meet with community groups to show them how they can do this research, and we have resources for educators on the website. At the University of Michigan, I’ve been teaching an undergraduate HistoryLab course (History 491, “Race, Local History, and Sundown Towns”) in which students engage in this work. They also learn how to access and analyze census data, find local history archives, and conduct oral histories.
What can small towns tell us about the history of race in America?
In the present, we know that cities and small towns are radically different kinds of places, from their demographics to the ways people in these places think about politics, race, immigration, and various social issues. In many respects, this real and imagined rural-urban divide can be traced back to the early twentieth century and to the processes of urbanization, industrialization, internal migration, and immigration. Focusing on that period, I’ve been exploring how people in a few very white, small towns in Maine, Indiana, and Napa Valley, California, responded to these changes and how their responses shaped their racial world.
It’s a history of small towns often defined by exclusion, Ku Klux Klan activity, and white-centered local histories. It’s also a cultural history in which various practices, including amateur blackface minstrel shows (into the 1970s), historical pageants, Indian mascots, and even a 1920s dance party craze featuring music from China, shaped ideas about race. I’m uncovering this largely unknown past of small-town America. I also see an opportunity for this research to speak to our racial present. Toward that end, the book will consider ways people can grapple with this hard history and find hope, inspiration, and a path forward.
Can you tell us about Singing Justice?
Singing Justice is an investigative music collaborative combining research and performance. Organized through the Humanities Collaboratory at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan, we are a diverse group of faculty, graduate students, and performers dedicated to centering music by Black people, including composers, performers, and audiences that have been marginalized and misrepresented in music history. Our work cuts across genres including spirituals, blues, jazz, Motown, and hip hop, as well as opera, country, and art song. We are staging seminar recitals in which we mix performance, historical context, and performer-audience Q&A for a range of audiences in the United States and Europe. We are drawing on those recitals and additional research to write a book that will serve as a guide for talking about and teaching about Black song, and pitched to scholars, educators, and people interested in music.
How do you approach collaborations with artists and fellow scholars?
Collaboration was a challenge for me initially because I was trained to do scholarly work on my own and largely in isolation. But it’s been incredible and even magical what our Singing Justice group has already accomplished collectively. From my perspective our collaboration has worked for the following reasons: We truly listen to each other, hearing what each of us brings to the conversation and what each of us needs. We are generous and patient with each other. We’ve learned to trust each other, and we’ve created a compassionate and supportive community. It helps that each of us is invested in the work. At the end of the day, though, it is our care for each other that is helping us to do amazing work together, work that none of us could have produced on our own.