Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$root.page}}

Audrey Melillo grew up hearing rumors about her hometown. Raised in a suburb just north of downtown Los Angeles, Melillo sensed that she grew up in a sundown town. That moniker refers to the dangers to marginalized groups of being in a town after dark, but more broadly means a town that intentionally excluded a group of people from residing, owning property, or running businesses—historically or even in the present day.

Most often, Black people, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Jewish people have been affected. For Melillo, a junior in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy with an LSA minor in computer science, this hunch remained unverified until she joined Stephen Berrey’s History Lab, which was investigating sundown towns. 

“In the class, we chose a town to investigate. We looked at census data and archival information, like old newspaper articles, and conducted oral interviews with the local historical society,” Melillo explains.

What did Melillo discover?

“The data shows that my hometown”—La Cañada Flintridge, California—“was very likely a sundown town,” she says. The most striking evidence? A series of newspaper articles from the early 1940s. “They encouraged people to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t sell their home to anyone who wasn’t white because it would ‘compromise the integrity of the community.’”

Past and Present

Sundown towns became prevalent after the Reconstruction Era in the late 19th century as new Jim Crow laws and practices were emerging and an increasing number of people migrated around the country, says Berrey, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and associate professor of history and of American culture. This included Black people who had been enslaved in the South and a large Chinese population that had previously been recruited to the United States to work on the railroads in the West.

Over the years, these policies were enforced formally through ordinances and legal covenants, and informally through word of mouth, police escorts out of town, and signage. They peaked around 1970, though the practice continued after 1970. Especially early on, Berrey says most sundown towns were in the Midwest, the West, and on the East Coast. “Everywhere except the South, which had its own kind of racial system emerging at the same time around segregation.”

But how does a town become a sundown town? Berrey says sometimes an alleged crime or a labor dispute spurred people to drive out a particular population. Other times, people simply decided they were going to exclude a group, without an apparent catalyst.

 

A wave of sundown towns also emerged during the development of suburbs after World War II. In places like Levittowns—suburbs of mass-produced affordable homes for veterans—developers stated explicitly that Black people couldn’t buy homes. “This is one of those moments in history when we see a real uptick in this practice,” Berrey says. “These rules were embedded in housing contracts, zoning ordinances, and in some cases were enforced through real estate agents who steered people away from a particular neighborhood.”

Today, it is some 150 years after the rise of sundown town policies, and decades after the boom of racially exclusive suburbs. Yet the legacy of these practices still impacts many towns, even in subtle ways, Berrey says.

“It’s like a second generation,” Berrey says. “Formal ordinances and legal covenants might be gone, but these places are more likely to have issues with police, more misunderstandings across racial lines, or just a lack of interracial empathy. The pattern is clear, especially in places that aren’t comfortable talking about and repairing that history. That’s where we see the legacy of some of these practices bleeding into future generations.”

The Sundown Town Project

Berrey directs the Sundown Town Project, an ongoing research effort that investigates the complicated history of sundown towns and captures that data on a website for the public. Founded by the late historian James Loewen, the Sundown Town Project, like Berrey’s History Lab course, uses census data and archival documents to uncover these towns’ pasts. “James’s research began in Illinois, where he grew up, and he quickly learned these practices weren’t just isolated to that state,” Berrey says. “He wrote a book on sundown towns and wanted to share that information on a website and allow other people to contribute their own information to it.”

The project’s research involves a three-step investigation, beginning with census data. A big change in a certain population’s presence, either all at once or over the span of decades, could indicate that some marginalizing policy or practice occurred. Researchers cross-reference these dates with archival documents, like newspapers, to check for any major events. From there, they reach out to local members of the town to conduct oral histories. “We rely heavily on this because there often isn’t a lot of written evidence of these informal practices,” Berrey says.

“We want to tell the truth about the past,” Berrey continues, “and provide a space to grapple with these hard histories. It’s the key first step towards thinking about how to create welcoming, inclusive communities in the present.”

For Melillo, being able to delve deeper into the history of her hometown has added a new dimension to her U-M education. “I’m interested in policy, and this class helped to hone my skills as a researcher and showed me a new side of how problematic codified policies really are,” she says.

“Before this class, I thought research was just for the STEM community,” Melillo continues. “But I’ve learned that, through research, we can reckon with the past and truly understand the legacy of these towns. This work is vital. It shows that history isn’t rigid.”

Learn about supporting the Department of History

Learn about supporting the Department of American Culture

 

 

Illustration by Aimee Andrion

 

 

Ancient Wisdom, New Technology

AI is giving new life to scrolls buried in Mount Vesuvius’s wreckage, and Classical Studies Professor Richard Janko is on the team deciphering texts unearthed from volcanic ash.

 

More Than One Story

An LSA student has curated a museum exhibit that celebrates the stories of Chinese Americans in Detroit—from their migration to the present-day community.

 

Hey Siri, Are We Cool?

AI is developing rapidly, and there’s no consensus on what that means. Sure, it can help with planning vacations or solving medicine shortages—but will it also lead to human extinction? LSA faculty and alumni weigh in on AI’s changing landscape.

 

A scholarship made Alison’s dream of attending Michigan a reality. Now, as an LSA sociology major, she is turning her passion for serving others into action for a better community.

Your annual fund gift to LSA changes the lives of students like Alison so they can make a difference in the world.

Email
Release Date: 05/08/2024
Category: Research
Tags: LSA; American Culture; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Anna Megdell