Issues

Appleton was indeed  a ‘Sundown Town’

By Scott Peeples, April 16, 2013

 Three African American Civil War veterans settled in Appleton after serving our nation in the war. Two of them are buried in Appleton's Riverside Cemetery.

 In 1880, the City of Appleton counted 19 African Americans residents and continued to have between 10-19 through the 1910 Census.

 By 1920, that number had dropped to only 4  . . . and by 1930, 0.

 There has been widespread speculation about what drove the black population out of town in the 30s, 40s and 50s? Was it the unwritten Sundown Town law? Or even the presence of the Ku Klux Klan?  

 In Appleton, the so-called Sunset Law was never a law or ordinance. That according to a check of city ordinances from 1928 to 1965. Still, it was a very real concept to the white people in Appleton who perpetuated it.

 When my parents moved to Appleton in 1964 (a year before I was born), my mother asked a neighbor why she hadn’t seen any black people around town. He matter-of-factly informed her that Appleton had a “sundown law.” As we now know, this meant that black people were not allowed to live, or even stay overnight, in Appleton.

 It is reputed that police would question black people on the street after dark to make sure they were on their way out of town.

 According to Dr. Martin Gruberg, a professor at UW-Oshkosh, actress/singer Leslie Uggams, most famous for her portrayal of “Kizzy” in the Roots miniseries, was forced to stay in a hotel in Oshkosh after performing at the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour. World famous opera singer Marian Anderson – who was famously denied access to sing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution  -- was also denied a hotel stay in Appleton.

 The long standing Conway Hotel, just recently torn down, was notorious for not allowing black people to use its facilities. As a child in the early ‘70s, I only remember the Conway as the place my mom got her hair done on Saturday mornings.

 According to former Post Crescent reporter Bob Lowe, there was even a sign outside of Fond du Lac along Hwy 41 that ominously warned black people they were not welcome north of there.

 This was the way of life in Appleton into the 1960s.  Exactly when things turned around, is unclear; Martin Luther King spoke at UW-Fox Valley in 1967 and there is no record where he stayed the night.  Perhaps the formation of A Better Chance (ABC) program in Appleton in 1968 spurred the elimination Appleton’s sundown status. The program, which continues today, brings black and Hispanic boys from low-income, large urban communities to live and go to school in Appleton.

 In April, author James Loewen spoke at UW-Fox Valley as part of the Fox Cities Book Festival. He detailed his research on this disturbing tale of human indecency.  His book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” was named the Gustavus Myers Foundation "Distinguished Book of 2005."

 When he began his research, he expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (his home state) and perhaps 50 across the country. Instead, he’s found 506 in Illinois and thousands across the United States. According to Loewen, society became more racist between 1890 and 1940, the period he calls “the nadir of race relations in our nation.” Many communities became “all white” on purpose across the United States during this time.

 “Sundown Towns” is the first book ever written on the topic.  Anyone with information on a community reputed to be sundown town is encouraged to e-mail Jim Loewen at jloewen@uvm.edu  His research on this issue is ongoing.

 While many residents of former sundown towns are reticent to admit their racist past, those of us in Appleton and the Fox Cities who work every day to create an inclusive, accepting community want to be forthright and honest about Appleton’s scurrilous treatment of African Americans.  As Edmund Burke once said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”  

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