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Was Your Wisconsin Town a "Sundown Town"?

When asked to think about the history of racism in the United States, many people think first about slavery and segregation in the South. There's often less focus on the racism that existed, and continues to exist, in places like the Midwest.

That racism often took on different forms, including what were known as "sundown towns," communities that didn't allow people of color to be in the municipality after dark.

Wisconsin Public Radio received a WHYsconsin question about the history of sundown towns in Wisconsin. It came from Laurie Lambries after she found out the city where she lives, Manitowoc, was considered a likely sundown town.

"I was shocked," Lambries said. "I don't even remember when I first heard the term, but somebody was talking about it and (said), 'You know, 'sundown town,'' and I'm like, 'What's a sundown town?'"

Lambries said when she asked around about this history locally, there weren't many interested in providing answers.

"It was crickets," she said.

What we know about sundown towns

Sundown towns took off during the 1890s, and were located primarily in the Midwest, West and Northeast regions of the U.S. They were far less common in the South, in part because the South had its own racial system of Jim Crow segregation, Stephen Berrey, a professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan, said in a recent interview on WPR's "Central Time." 

Sundown towns were used to exclude Black, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American people, Berrey said. Which group was targeted in a specific place often depended on the ethnic makeup of a particular region.

Berrey said the rise of sundown towns came at a time when there was growing labor competition between American and Chinese workers, and a growing number of Black people moving North to flee racial violence as part of the Great Migration.

In Wisconsin, three towns are classified as having "surely" been sundown towns: AppletonJanesville; and Mequon, according to a database of possible sundown towns across the U.S. originally compiled by James Loewen, a now-deceased historian and author of the book "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism." Berrey and volunteers continue to update the database today.

Another 21 communities in Wisconsin are considered "probable" sundown towns, including Ashland, Wausau, Sturgeon Bay, Port Washington, South Milwaukee and Evansville.

Read entire article at Wisconsin Public Radio