Taken back, taken aback

The interview this morning on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR with Elliot Jaspin, author of Buried in the Bitter Waters: The History of Racial Cleansing in America was a little startling because of the general attitude of Mr. Jaspin and guest host Katty Kay of the BBC that the material they were discussing was completely unknown, had been widely and deliberately overlooked.

Mr. Jaspin's book examines the wave of mass extraditions, forced evictions of entire black communities by whites, with these events running from the Reconstruction era through the 1920s. These he terms "racial cleansing" -- and to fit his definition, the evictions must include a public demand for blacks to leave (not simply a real estate policy of exclusion), a demand often backed by threats of violence and by acts of very real violence against African-Americans.

It is certainly true that the horrible, widespread nature of these events are not fully understood by the average white American -- and if informed of them, he would probably refuse to believe their extent at first. I certainly did. One e-mailer to the show this morning insisted that Mr. Jaspin was simply wrong about Corbin, Kentucky -- if he wasn't just outright lying. Nothing like this ever happened there. For such denials, the paper record of the Freedmen's Bureau, census bureau, police records and newspaper reports will never be enough counter-evidence.

But given the explosion of national publicity in the early '90s accorded the all-but-forgotten 1921 Tulsa race riot and given the 1997 Hollywood film, Rosewood about a similar act of mass racial terrorism in Florida, the interview's overall air of surprise and fresh discovery seemed a bit odd.

What made it odder still is James Loewen's eye-opening study, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism from two years ago. Admittedly, Mr. Jaspin and Professor Loewen discuss two different things: the violent expulsion of blacks vs. the continued exclusion of African-Americans from entire communities (in the case of the infamous "sundown towns," these were communities that actually had signs threatening blacks to get out after dark, although the sign wasn't necessary for Prof. Loewen to label a town a sundown community. What's required is the continued lack of any black population more than 1 percent) .

But sundown towns are essentially cases of racial cleansing made more or less permanent. Prof. Loewen began his study thinking he would find perhaps a few dozen such towns around the country. He has since found 432 confirmed sundown towns -- just in Illinois. This means thousands across the United States and, in many, many cases, towns whose racial segregation status is unknown to many recent residents because it has simply "always been the case."

Prof. Loewen and Mr. Jaspin make very similar arguments, use similar evidence -- that the "Great Migration" of African-Americans northward after the Civil War, for example, was followed by what Prof. Loewen terms the "Great Retreat," the removal of blacks from hundreds, even thousands of communities, north and south. Or that this was hardly just a "Southern" thing. According to the US Census Bureau, the most racially segregated big-city in America today is Milwaukee. Or -- what was particularly telling to me -- Mr. Jaspin's recounting on the air of how young blacks, when they learned to drive, were often taught two things by their elders: how to act when stopped by the police and areas of town to avoid. This directly echoed Prof. Loewen's material about old, printed guidebooks for cross-country black travelers, advising them on which towns to drive around or not stop in when riding a train.

There is a good reason, though, that Prof. Loewen's book isn't better known, didn't stir up more controversy. I wrote a sizable feature on Sundown Towns as did the Washington Post. But The New York Times didn't even review it -- although it would certainly fit book editor Sam Tanenhaus' argument for non-fiction books getting pre-eminent coverage these days (they offer us "news about the culture") But if the NYTimes doesn't deem something important, other media outlets follow suit, especially when it concerns books or socio-political issues.

I'll be curious to see whether Mr. Jaspin's book gets covered by the Times -- because it "happened to a journalist" and because his story involves the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's refusal to print his original series of stories about racial cleansing.

An opportunity for the NYTimes to look better than other print media certainly can't hurt a book's cause.

**Read the comments attached to this for Prof. Loewen's and Mr. Jaspin's responses.

March 15, 2007 12:30 PM | | Comments (4)



The Virtues of Giving Credit

Of all books ever published in the United States, only two directly treat the subject of Elliot Jaspin's new book at length. One, When Hatred and Fear Ruled by Millie Meyerholtz, treats Pana, Illinois, which drove out its black population in 1899, an expulsion Jaspin does not cover. The other is my book, Sundown Towns.

It treats eight of Jaspin's twelve expulsions at some length and mentions the other four (two are only mentioned as sundown counties). As he implies, our books complement each other. His provides greater detail on twelve expulsions; mine describes expulsions from at least 30 additional counties and cities. Sundown Towns is also broader in that it treats places that prevented blacks from entering from the start. Also, I mostly use town rather than county as unit of focus, hence come up with far more locales. And it is analytic as well as descriptive.

Nevertheless, we do both discuss expulsions. Since my book came out two years before Mr. Jaspin's, in newspaper parlance I "scooped" him.

In the greater scheme of things, this is not so significant. There were so many sundown towns and counties in the U.S. -- by my estimate about 10,000 -- that room remains for many books on the topic. After all, there have also been about 10,000 lynchings in American history, and about 1,000 books on the subject. I am happy that Jaspin's book came out. I look forward to a fourth and fifth and sixth book, so we can all learn more about this astonishing topic.

However, it is still astonishing that he did not cite my work. He claims this is because he never used it. If so, he should have! His analysis of the causes of the expulsions would have benefitted from my wider discussion (chapters six, "Underlying Causes," and seven, "Catalysts and Origin Myths" of Sundown Towns), for example. Still more importantly, the greatest weakness of his book lies in his thinking that he has discovered most if not all expulsions. He writes:

Like an archipelago, the counties where racial cleansings occurred form a rough arc that begins in North Carolina, crosses the Appalachians, and extends into the Midwest.

While the expulsions he found do lie in that crescent, that's because he looked in that crescent. Had he looked farther -- had he cited my book -- he would have found expulsions in Oregon, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, and many other places.

This is important because most of his expulsions occurred in formerly slave states. His only exceptions are two in Indiana, one of which, Jaspin emphasizes, was just 33 miles from Louisville, Kentucky. Once again, as with Hollywood's depiction of this phenomenon, we can infer that severe racism in America is mostly a Southern problem. But it isn't. Sundown towns and expulsions are not "long ago and far away." Many took place far from the South.

They are also not so long ago. Many took place more recently than Jaspin's book implies. His chapters are in chronological order from 1864 to 1923; chapter 12 then drops back to 1906. Many expulsions took place after 1923, however, some as recently as 1954, and whites have retaliated violently against families trying to move in as recently as the last fifteen years.

I think Jaspin avoided citing Sundown Towns because his story line is not only that many places expelled their black populations, but also that Elliot Jaspin brought this to light. Indeed, the first sentence in his book reads, "The story of how I found America's racial cleansings begins ..."

As soon as his newspaper stories came out, I put up a link to them at my website and had a conversation with him inviting him to link to mine. He expressed no interest in so doing. Any reader of Sundown Towns might want to learn more on the topic, was my reasoning, like any reader of Jaspin's work. Besides violating accepted rules of scholarly citation, Jaspin's more insular approach also leads him to violate standards common in journalism, or so I infer from Jerome Week's article, "Taken Aback, Taken Aback."

Let me close positively. Buried in the Bitter Waters makes an important contribution to the story of America's racial cleansings and resulting sundown towns. Not only is there room for us both on this topic, there is room for both our books on your bookshelf. Indeed, isn't it interesting that there are only two?

I read the blog by Prof. Loewen with great interest and to borrow a word "astonishment."

Prof. Loewen was less than forthcoming about our conversations. We met once for lunch while we were working on our respective books. After lunch he asked to look at my research and I declined. However, I did take him back to my office and made copies of the files I had on four expulsions I knew I was not going to use. One of them - Montlake, Tennessee - eventually made its way into his book. Whether he already knew about it, I have no idea. A few days later he called and told me there had been an expulsion in Comanche County, Texas. He did not supply any "materials" or documentation and we never talked about Comanche County again. Neither of us gave the other an acknowledgement in our books nor should we have. I would hope acknowledgements are reserved for those people who went out of their way to help an author.

Prof. Loewen is also surprised that I did not cite his book in my work. As Jerome Weeks noted, "Mr. Jaspin and Professor Loewen discuss two different things." Precisely so. I wanted to give a name - "racial cleansings" - to the practice of forcibly removing blacks from entire counties, a phenomenon that plagued America from the civil war until at least the 1920s. To do this I did a detailed study of a dozen cases. Prof. Loewen was interested in "sundown towns," communities that excluded blacks either by covenant or coercion. His book ranges over scores of examples.

As part of my focus on racial cleansings, I devoted a chapter to the KKK expulsion in Vermillion County, Indiana and another chapter to the expulsion in Sharp County, Arkansas. Prof. Loewen skipped Vermillion County entirely and only noted there were no blacks in Sharp County. How that came about is never explained. He cited the racial cleansing in Unicoi County, Tennessee as an example of how interracial assaults sparked mob violence. He did not mention that the NAACP never objected to the expulsion, an issue that I think is very significant. I spent a great deal of time tracing the land stolen from blacks during the Forsyth County racial cleansing. Loewen did not. The list of differences is almost endless. That is not astonishing because these are very different books with very different objectives. Given that, I did not cite his book because I did not use it in my research. It is that simple.

Jaspin's failure to cite my book, SUNDOWN TOWNS, in his, is indeed astonishing.
Nor does he acknowledge my help anywhere, even though I supplied him with the expulsion of African Americans from Comanche County, TX, that forms the second chapter of his book.

I remember one of those "sundown towns" very well since I grew up only 15 miles from it. Vidor, Texas, between Beaumont and Orange going toward the Louisiana state line, was one such place and even today it's known as one of the most segregated cities in that part of the state.

Nothing that happened there would surprise me in the least.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on March 15, 2007 12:30 PM.

Shaken was the previous entry in this blog.

Velvet reflections is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.