Oolitic wasn't where they'd planned to go. But in the summer of 1980, geologist Unni Rowell was fairly new to Bloomington. With her two daughters in town for a visit, she thought an excursion to see the impressive limestone quarries in Lawrence County would be fun.
So they drove toward Bedford on a Sunday morning, saw the exit to Oolitic and decided spontaneously to check out the active quarry there.
Downtown Oolitic was nearly deserted, except for a friendly young man who approached to ask if he could help. Learning of their interest, he gave the three fair-haired, fair-skinned women an impromptu, well-informed tour and historical overview of the quarry.
"As we got ready to leave," Unni recalls, "I said, 'Oolitic looks like a very nice town.' The young man pulled himself up, poised and proud, and said, 'Do you know why it's a nice town? There ain't no niggers here.'"
His words hit the women like a punch to the gut. Unni managed to squeeze out, "Thank you. We have to leave now."
The two daughters, who'd spent their girlhood years in Uganda and Norway, had never before encountered such self-assured racism.
But judging from Sundown Towns by James W. Loewen, emeritus professor of sociology from the University of Vermont, the young Oolitic man typified many residents of intentionally all-white towns, counties and suburbs. He had a "sense that it is perfectly normal to live in an all-white community," he found it necessary to create "a black 'they' — a racial outgroup" to underpin his sense of white privilege, including the proprietary right to exclude, and he felt "the license to say anything (he wants to) about people of color."
Oolitic is in fact among the 229 "all-white" Indiana towns that Loewen suspects to be "sundown towns." Many sundown towns and counties throughout the United States in the period 1890-1940 posted signs at their boundaries with some variation on the warning, "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set on You Here."
Such a sign was spotted in White County, Indiana, as recently as 1998, according to Loewen. More generally, a sundown town was (or is) one whose residents excluded African, Chinese, Mexican, Jewish or Native Americans between sundown and sunup, whether or not it posted signs to that effect.
From his current home in a majority-black neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Loewen reports that of the 229 all-white Indiana towns he's identified, "I was able to get information as to the racial policies of 94 of them. I confirmed all 94 as sundown towns. Indeed, I have yet to uncover any overwhelmingly white town in Indiana that on-site research failed to confirm as a sundown town."
In his book, Loewen also claims that 15 counties — Greene, Martin, Morgan and Brown among them — were sundown counties.
After World War II, Loewen argues, the creation of new suburbs accounted for most of the continued growth of intentionally all-white communities in Indiana and throughout the United States.
"Every one of these towns needs, it seems to me, to set things right," said Loewen. "Doing so requires three steps. First, admit it: 'We did that.' (Many towns are in a state of denial.) Second, apologize: 'We did it, and we're sorry.' Third, state: 'We don't do it anymore' — and put teeth behind that verbal statement."
Larry Friedman, president of the Bloomington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Loewen's seminal study reveals how deeply our part of the Midwest has been blighted by bigotry and racial exclusion.
"The 'sundown' legacy has hardly been eradicated," he said. "It represents a disheartening constriction of minority rights, just as it narrows and warps the majority. It defies the Bill of Rights and is antithetical to the core principles of the ACLU."
To come to grips as a community with this and other diversity issues, Bloomington United and Bloomington ACLU will present a series of conversations and trainings, March 21-23, with Loewen. All events are free, subsidized by donations from more than 25 town and campus organizations.
The series includes:
- "How History Keeps Us Racist, and What To Do About It," public lecture, March 21, 7:30 p.m., Woodburn 101.
- "Lies My Teacher Told Me, and What To Do About Them," workshop for MCCSC teachers and IU School of Education students, March 22, 4-5:30 p.m., Bloomington High School South cafeteria.
- "The Racial Makeup of Our Community and the Legacy of Sundown Towns: A Community Forum," March 22, 7 p.m., Trinity Episcopal Church (panelists: Elizabeth Mitchell, William H. Wiggins, Jr., James Loewen, Lawrence Friedman, with moderator Beverly Calendar-Anderson)
- "Conversation About the Racial Makeup of Your Community," with IU students, staff, and faculty, March 23, 9:30 a.m., University Club, Indiana Memorial Union.
- "Noon Edition," WFIU-FM, March 23.
John Clower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.