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Goshen repents of being a ‘sundown town’

6.23. 2015 Written By: Dan Shenk 1,562 read

The author (left) and Lee Roy Berry Jr. after the resolution passed. Photo by Richar Aguirre.

On March 17, the Goshen (Ind.) City Council voted 6–0 to pass “A Resolution Acknowledging the Racially Exclusionary Past of Goshen, Indiana, as a ‘Sundown Town.’ ”

The Goshen council thereby may have become the first elected body of a former “sundown town” in the United States to formally admit its racist history.
The vote was a culmination of five months of intensive work by a number of us in Goshen—both publicly and behind the scenes. Here’s that story.

James W. Loewen, author of the 2005 book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, says Goshen shared this notoriety with an estimated 10,000 towns, cities, suburbs and even counties throughout the United States (especially in the Midwest) for much of the 20th century—indeed, to this day in a few cases. Call it ethnic cleansing, American style.

A Harvard-trained sociologist and former university professor, Loewen defines a sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it.” I would add: or even staying overnight in it.

The tranquil-sounding, two-word expression “sundown towns” cloaked a nationwide chamber of horrors for African Americans for at least the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

Two dozen ‘Mennonite’ sundown towns?

Loewen’s book and website reveal that approximately two dozen municipalities across the United States with substantial Mennonite populations were categorized as possibly, probably or surely sundown towns from about 1900 into the 1960s or 1970s. Goshen, however, may have had the dubious distinction of being the sundown town inhabited by the largest number of Mennonites.

To access on Loewen’s website the above information and other “sundown” documents, including reference to Goshen’s action in March, Google as follows:
• James W Loewen
• The Homepage of James Loewen
• At right center, click on title of book Sundown Towns

The statement about Goshen should appear at left center of Loewen’s “sundown” page, which also has a map of the contiguous 48 states, plus Washington, D.C. Municipalities and counties come up for each state. Loewen has identified each listing as “Surely,” “Probable” or “Possible” regarding the sundown-town designation.

Loewen, incidentally, did not grow up Mennonite, but his father did—in Mountain Lake, Minn. David F. Loewen became a doctor and practiced in Decatur, Ill. (not a sundown town), where young James was raised. The author told me: “I am genetically Mennonite. My father … stopped being Mennonite … in the 1920s, so I was not raised Mennonite. I still respect Menno’s teachings, though, especially about slavery and war.”

Loewen says a few other sundown towns may have done something similar to what Goshen did March 17, but he has no evidence of it. He notes that individual mayors of former sundown towns have taken steps to make their community more welcoming, and several museums across the country chronicle the racist history of U.S. communities. But he says Goshen (population 32,000) may be the first to have its elected council take such a step.

The fact that Goshen systematically excluded African Americans for much of the 20th century is not in question. My research, which started in September 2013, confirms this fact, as does the research of many others, including Loewen; Ruth Eigsti and Les Zook, Goshen College students in 1951 and 1981, respectively; Steve Nolt, a Goshen College history professor; Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College; Mike Puro, mayor of Goshen, 1988–97; and a 2012 Goshen College class called Reporting for the Public Good.

When did Goshen become a sundown town? The U.S. Census figures in 1890 listed 21 “colored” people in Goshen, whereas in 1910, 20 years later, the number had dropped to two. Then in 1920, it was three; in 1930, it was two “Negroes”; in 1940, it was six; in 1950, it was 11; and in 1960, it was 37 “Non-white.”

Ironically, about 50 years before the turn of the century, according to research by retired Goshen College professor Ervin Beck and others, Goshen was a key link of the Underground Railroad. And in the late 1840s, both editors of Goshen’s two newspapers were abolitionists.

So around 1900, Goshen started being a sundown town. When did it stop? Well, we know it officially stopped on March 17, when the city council passed the resolution. Three Republicans and three Democrats (including Everett Thomas, former editor of The Mennonite) voted for it. One Republican member of the council could not attend, but he relayed his support for the resolution.

African-American experience in Goshen was unique

Several people in the days prior to the March 17 Council meeting—and one or two at the meeting itself—argued that many individuals and groups have been victims of discrimination and prejudice in Goshen’s history (see box below) and, since we can’t include them all, we shouldn’t single out any individuals or groups—thereby rendering irrelevant such a resolution and eliminating the need for it.

I attempted to counter this “red herring” argument in my opening remarks March 17, when I said, “Goshen, of course, also has discriminated against other groups (like most towns in the Midwest and in the United States), but the African- American exclusion in Goshen was unique in at least three respects: its intensity, its duration and its formalization by city leadership.”

Regarding the last point, I note that while there never was a Goshen “sundown” ordinance, at least three leadership entities put Goshen’s discriminatory stance toward African Americans in writing over a time period spanning more than 40 years:

First, the Mayor’s Office from 1936 to 1951 (four mayors, including one Democrat) basically stated that Goshen was a wonderful, law-abiding community with a low crime rate largely because the city was all-white—97.5 percent native-born white and 2.5 percent foreign-born white, and “there is no Negro population.”

Second, in 1953, when the Goshen Chamber of Commerce was established, the Chamber picked up the racism torch. From 1964 to 1978, the key demographic phrase was changed to 0.5 percent nonwhite.

And third, some developers of subdivisions. I found evidence of “whites only” clauses in property deeds and covenants for three subdivisions, but I’ve heard there were others as well. Former Mayor Mike Puro told me he has seen reference on Goshen deeds to Jews also being excluded.

Lee Roy Berry Jr., a longtime friend, has been particularly helpful on this point. I’ve heard him say that it’s one thing to have substantial prejudice in a community by ordinary citizens, but it’s another to have the racism institutionalized by city leadership (both elected and nonelected), as occurred in Goshen. A Goshen College professor for 40 years, Berry is still a practicing attorney in Goshen.

The wording of nearly a dozen individuals, including two Republican city council members, is included in the resolution’s 31st and final draft, which ends as follows: “It happened, it was wrong, it’s a new day.” I’m glad the approved resolution contains the phrase “it was wrong.” There’s a moral component to the word “wrong,” as explained in the first definition of “wrong” in my unabridged dictionary: “not in accordance with what is morally right or good.”

Joe Liechty, a Goshen College professor whose term on the Goshen Community Relations Commission (CRC) expired last December, emailed me in mid-March to say: “I really like those nine words, including ‘wrong.’ That’s blunt about the moral aspect without pounding on it.”

Loewen was helpful to me in my original research in the fall of 2013 about Goshen as a sundown town, and he has continued to be helpful. After the Goshen News on Nov. 16, 2014, publicized a Nov. 11 presentation by Berry and me to the CRC, Loewen somehow learned about it and, on Nov. 18, offered to come to Goshen and speak.

Loewen visits Goshen in early March

I subsequently worked closely with Kathy Meyer Reimer, Annette Brill Bergstresser, Nekeisha Alayna Alexis and others on arrangements, and Loewen did visit Elkhart County on March 1 and 2, making three public and three private presentations in Elkhart and Goshen. His presence enhanced the community conversation about sundown towns in general and the Goshen resolution in particular.

Loewen now touts Goshen on his website as a model to be emulated by other former (and persisting) sundown towns. On his site, he says Goshen stopped being a sundown town “some years ago,” and I would agree with that. There was evidence of significant change in Goshen in the 1970s and certainly the ’80s and ’90s, but even today we as a community still have a ways to go on the prejudice and discrimination front. I like to say Goshen is a “recovering” sundown town. We are all a work in progress.

Mayor Allan Kauffman was supportive behind the scenes for more than a year, and in early March he spoke publicly in favor of the resolution and placed it on the council agenda.

I researched and wrote, off and on, for nearly five months in late 2013 and early 2014. During that time and since, I’ve talked to many people of different races and ethnic backgrounds, folks from all walks of life and political persuasions—from Goshen, Elkhart, Nappanee, Mishawaka, South Bend and beyond. Most of the people I reached and who contacted me confirmed in various ways that Goshen was indeed a town that systematically excluded African Americans for much of the 20th century. Many of the stories were painful to hear. African-American Robert Hunt, now 71 and a pastor in Elkhart, told me his parents always told him: “Don’t let the dark catch you in Goshen.” Hunt himself was subjected to police profiling in Goshen in the early ’70s.

Development of Goshen’s resolution

In late January 2014, after reading a lengthy article I wrote about Goshen as a sundown town, Sara Hershberger Mast, a woman in my church (Faith Mennonite), said to me: “Now that we know all this happened, what is Goshen going to do about it?” I paused, then replied, “I don’t know, but that’s a good question.”
I emailed Mayor Kauffman, and he said it might be worth looking into. I soon made preliminary contacts with the CRC and the Goshen Ministerial Association (GMA), but the ball didn’t start rolling in earnest until autumn.

Liechty asked me what other sundown towns had done in this regard. I said I didn’t know, but a place to start would be Loewen. I had consulted him several times the previous fall.

He got back to me and said he had no examples along these lines from any of thousands of such towns he has identified across the United States.

In early November 2014, I decided to draft a resolution myself, making it possible for the CRC and GMA to see practically, not just theoretically, what Berry and I would be proposing. I used a number of elements of my research from the previous 14 months as the foundation of the resolution.

On Nov. 11, Berry and I went to the CRC and made our case for why we felt this would be a good thing for Goshen to do. We gave a similar presentation on Nov. 20 to the GMA. In early December, Rev. John Hickey, pastor of Faith Lutheran, got back to Berry and me saying the GMA had unanimously endorsed the resolution.

The CRC took longer. Berry and I opted not to attend any further CRC meetings, but we heard that the four-month process there in five different meetings involved healthy give and take and significant edits and input by several CRC members and Republican city council members. On March 10, the CRC voted 7-0 to recommend the resolution to the council.

Two lighter moments

While this is a somber subject, with considerable pain as we lament a sad chapter of Goshen’s history—it’s not all doom and gloom. There also have been lighter moments along the way. I’ll mention just two:

1. A Goshen elected official told me he was at a meeting late last year or early this year—and the group was trying to come up with a slogan to encourage Goshen stores to stay open later and for people to frequent those establishments. A Goshenite unaware of recent conversations about the city’s past suggested “Downtown at Sundown.” According to my source, the suggestion was met with stony silence.

2. After I communicated my nine-word phrase—“It happened, it was wrong, it’s a new day”—Liechty emailed Mayor Kauffman, Berry and me as follows: “I’d prefer: It happened … we rend our garments in abject remorse …” But Liechty quickly added that the garment rending might be a little over the top.

Soon after Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994 as the first black president of South Africa, he and Archbishop Desmond Tutu initiated a truth-and-reconciliation process—because, as they said, truthtelling precedes healing and reconciliation. We’ve been doing something similar in Goshen.

Why pass such a resolution? Some have said it’s just dredging up ancient history that’s no longer relevant, that it’s an exercise in futility by people who weren’t actually responsible. I disagree.

Nolt stated in 2012 that “communities [that] fail to acknowledge their racial past may have a harder time moving forward in a positive way. It’s not like we need to dwell on this and say the community is forever marked by it, but the other extreme would be to just not acknowledge it at all, which could blind us to ways that prejudice might continue.”

Berry, in late 2013, said, “We need to tell these stories. It’s easier to have a false understanding of our community than it is to deal with ambiguities. The process helps foster healthy humility for all of us.”

An “Elkhart to Goshen New Day Walk” is slated for Sept. 19. The Christian communities of Goshen and Elkhart are giving leadership to this tangible expression of interracial reconciliation and progress.

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