When Place Makes Race

When James Loewen wrote about Sundown Towns, many Americans were shocked by how blatantly today’s residential segregation was created. For much of the 20th century, thousands of northern public buildings and suburban city limits had signs that said “N—-r, don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.” Yet the human desire for relationship and connection is stronger than the boundaries of town and racial ideology. What kinds of people have we become while living in such intensely segregated places?

 photo by Lloyd Cedarstrand

photo by Lloyd Cedarstrand

When Al Letson visited Pike County, OH in 2012, he found an interesting answer to that question: a sundown town where the physical markers of race have blurred, but the distinctions of racism remain brutally strong.

The former sundown town Waverly remains 92% white. The Waverly neighborhood of East Jackson, once an underground railroad settlement, is now a place where many residents have cream-colored skin, red hair, light-colored eyes– and proudly identify as black in spite of ongoing racial attacks and the presence of white supremacist groups.

Sometimes, the bitter divide of race occurs within a single family. And sometimes, these people of mixed racial heritage in southern Ohio are eager to be anything but black.

Settle down and listen to an exceptionally well-told story, “As Black As We Wish To Be” on “State of the Re-Union” with Al Letson:

This story shows us how place can define race. Residents of East Jackson are black, in part, because they live in East Jackson. The living memory of history that marks Appalachian culture is part of what keeps the sharp line of race alive in Waverly; it also points to the enduring strength of Affrilachian identity.

The people of Pike County, Ohio ask us important questions: What is blackness? A genetic relationship? A cultural loyalty? An historic legacy? A social status? A choice?

Tell us:

  • Where in your life have features of land and place shaped who is – and who isn’t– black?
  • How does staying in the community where you were born shape your experience of blackness? Has moving to a new place changed your experience of race?