'Sundown towns': Naperville museum leading research on housing discrimination for exhibit
Naperville museum leading research on housing discrimination for new exhibit
Fifty years ago, 71% of Illinois towns with a population of at least 1,000 had no minority residents. Everyone living there was white.
In these 475 towns, spread across the state, only Caucasians could reside as a result of largely unwritten practices that prevented people of color from moving in.
Leading up to changes that started in the 1960s, there were "sundown towns" -- places where Black Americans were not permitted to live, sleep or stay after sundown. And there was redlining, the practice of identifying residential areas by the race or religion of the people who lived there -- and not allowing in anyone who didn't "fit."
These days, many Americans "have no idea there were sundown towns or that there were these kids of exclusionary practices," said Donna Sack, vice president and chief program officer of the Naper Settlement historical museum in Naperville. "We realized there were pieces of the history that really had not been shared."
Sack and her colleagues at the Settlement, as well as those at five other museums across the Northern and Western regions of the country, are in the third year of researching an online exhibit that will illuminate such historical truths about housing segregation. Called "Unvarnished: Moving History Organizations to Interpret De Facto Segregation in the Northern and Western United States," the exhibit is set to launch as a free website in 2021.
Joining in the work funded by a federal grant for which Sack applied are the Oak Park River Forest Museum; African Heritage Inc. in Appleton, Wisconsin; the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut; Brea Museum and Historical Society in Brea, California; and Ohio History Connection in Columbus.
"The results of this project will walk institutions and organizations on how to appropriately discuss sundown towns and relate it to today's events, particularly the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations," said Sabrina Robins, a board member of African Heritage, Inc. who has a doctoral degree in political science.
The breadth of the research historians are compiling -- through oral histories, real estate records, census data and newspaper accounts -- will show the history of segregation by race is not only a "Southern narrative," Sack said.
Researchers have found things like newspaper headlines declaring Appleton "no city for 'cullied folks,'" advertisements for segregated neighborhoods in West Hartford, and DuPage County housing covenants from the 1950s that prevented anyone not Caucasian from buying, leasing or being given certain properties. The covenants typically said if anyone not Caucasian was found living on the premises, the deed would be null and ownership would revert to the lender.
"In most cases, suburbs were developed to be all white," Sack said.
That included Naperville, Sack said. The city did not begin to diversify until the 1960s, she said, when two African American employees of Bell Labs filed a federal complaint because they could not find housing in town, a fair housing committee formed and the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 was enacted.
"We quickly recognized that Naperville had exclusionary real estate practices in the 20th century," Sack said. "And that was primarily through the practice of being a sundown town and through controlling who lived here."
Sack recently presented some of her findings to Naperville Neighbors United, a group formed to engage in conversations to help make the city inclusive and welcoming.
She said she looks forward to the launch of the website when the communities of Naperville, Oak Park, River Forest, Appleton, Brea, Columbus and elsewhere can learn about exclusion enforced through housing. Discriminatory housing practices are exactly why the HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton exists. The center takes on housing discrimination cases from DuPage, Kane and parts of Cook counties, as well as 28 other counties in northern Illinois.
Executive Director Evelyn Sanguinetti, the state's former lieutenant governor, said she's pleased the "Unvarnished" online exhibit will raise awareness about the racial legacy of restrictive housing covenants.
"While racial restrictive housing covenants are unenforceable, many remain in deeds until this day," Sanguinetti said. "We cannot begin to heal and work toward fair housing, justice and reform unless we learn about the injustices that have plagued our country since its inception."
Sack places similar significance on the work of creating and eventually displaying the exhibit, which began in 2017 under a roughly $750,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The $1.5 million project is funded, in part, by the prestigious National Leadership Grant for Museums and, in part, by in-kind staff time of museum employees, as well as a $225,000 fundraising effort under way by grant recipient the Naperville Heritage Society.
It's healthy, Sack said, for communities to dive into their history to learn why their populations and policies look the way they do.
"In order for us to understand the events of today," she said, "we have to understand the totality of the history of yesterday."