Avoiding History at the National Trust


Mr. Loewen's most recent book, Sundown Towns, examines towns that have kept out racial and religious minorities.

On May 10 the National Trust for Historic Preservation joined countless local historians who, over the years, have maintained a conspiracy of silence about one of America's most shameful secrets.

Between 1890 and 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only. Many towns drove out their black populations. Others passed ordinances that prohibited African Americans after dark or kept them from owning or renting property. Still others stayed white by boycotting, harassing, and even killing nonwhites who ventured in.

The National Trust has just listed one of these towns, Kenilworth, Illinois, among "America's Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places." Kenilworth, Chicago's richest and most prestigious suburb, is "endangered" by McMansions. The National Trust describes Kenilworth as "an ideal suburb" that offers "a welcome escape from the dirt, noise and crowding of the city."

Surely no all-white suburb can be "ideal."

Joseph Sears founded Kenilworth with four key provisos: "Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only." "Caucasians only" was interpreted to exclude Jews as well as nonwhites. Later, Sears realized he had forgotten to allow for live-in servants and sent a note to each resident of Kenilworth; none objected. By 1950 the suburb had 79 African Americans — every one a maid, nanny, or other servant.

A Jewish family, the Spiegels of mail-order catalog fame, managed to move into Kenilworth in the 1920s, but they may have been the last for decades. Certainly in the 1950s Kenilworth was notorious for keeping Jews out. Kenilworth may also have excluded Catholics, but by the 1950s that prohibition was loosening. In the 1970s, Kenilworth let in Jews.

In 1964, a black family, the Calhouns, finally moved into Kenilworth. Teenagers burned a cross on their lawn, but they stuck it out for twelve years, making some friends in the community. In 2002, however, the town's leading realtor did not think that a single black family lived in Kenilworth.

Kenilworth's overwhelmingly white character makes it harder for nearby interracial suburbs like Oak Park to stay interracial. Over time, some white residents of places like Oak Park, amassing more money and wanting to move to a still more prestigious suburb, relocate to Kenilworth. Wealthy black families don't, knowing Kenilworth's racist past.

Precisely that past is obscured by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Nowhere does the Trust mention Kenilworth's racial and religious apartheid, even though it has been a defining characteristic of the town. Such obfuscation hardly serves history.

Instead, it preserves the smokescreen essential to the prestige of elite white suburbs. This prestige depends upon the "paradox of exclusivity." Metropolitan areas have long been ranked more prestigious to the degree that they exclude African Americans (and working class people, Jews, etc.). Living in such "exclusive neighborhoods" connotes status. Such places want to be all-white, but they don't want it known that they are all-white on purpose. Open exclusion implies prejudice and is not prestigious.

Ironically, the same processes that led to sundown suburbs also led to the distress evident in the other two neighborhoods that made the National Trust's endangered list, "Over the Rhine" in Cincinnati and the majority-black parts of New Orleans. Sundown suburbs cause inner-city decay, because as whites seek status in white towns, they withdraw not only themselves but also their sympathies, connections, and investment dollars from formerly interracial areas.

The National Trust concludes its nomination of Kenilworth: "The historic character of this very special place must be protected." First, the Trust needs to revise its write-up to acknowledge Kenilworth's racial past, because the historic character of this very special place must be exposed.

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William J. Stepp - 6/11/2006

By defn. a capitalist saves money (capital) and then advances it to productive factors--owners of land and labor. If a capitalist kills someone, an employee for example, he's a murderer.
Lefties love to indict capitalism because of some bad acts of a few capitalists. How many "bosses"--who may well be hired laborers of the managerial variety and not capitalists, actually had a worker killed?

Christianity has a far blacker mass murder record than capitalism.
There was never a capitalist counterpart of the inquisition, for example.

James W Loewen - 6/10/2006

Discussions with libertarians are always interesting, but "No capitalist ever murdered anyone, acting qua capitalist" goes over the top. So the boss who had a labor leader murdered is not "acting qua capitalist." This is like saying "No Christian ever murdered anyone, acting qua Christian," because a true Christian would obey the 10 Commandments. Tell that to the folks living in Palestine during the Crusades! Or to the French Protestants...

William J. Stepp - 6/8/2006

The absense of government, i.e. anarchy, is consistent with the rule of law. (See Bruce Benson, "The Enterprise of Law.")

The language of "majority," "minority," and "monopoly" have no place in a free market. On the market, politician-rulers don't vote for laws; they emerge spontaneously as a result of voluntary, market-based actions, such as the growth of the law merchant. It was anything but a monopoly.
I can't think of an actual media monopoly in the history of the media, nor do I know of a private army that ever acted in the criminal manner that the Grand Theft Pentagon does. No private army would invade Iraq, for example. It would be bad for business.
Arbitration, by definition, is not dictated to anyone.

I don't know what your political views are, but you put far too much emphasis on the accumulation of capital and its alleged ability to enable someone to exercise what is tantamount to political power.
Sorry, with no state, there's no political power.
Capitalism is far more "democratic" than the state. No capitalist ever murdered anyone, acting qua capitalist. You can't say that about politicians and generals.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/7/2006

"Markets undermine racism and work against it."

Only if the rules of the market are evenhanded. Government rules can be bigoted: Jim Crow laws are exhibit A. But the absence of government does not mean the absence of rules.

Assuming a modern economy, the withdrawal of government would leave those rules to be set by those best able to accumulate capital. Then a majority is subject to the whims of a minority able to use its wealth to monopolize other forms of power (whether via private armies, media monopolies, or the ability to dictate the forms of arbitration).

William J. Stepp - 6/7/2006

The relevant criterion here is state-promulgated and -enforced restrictions on minorities versus contractually-based restrictions.
An example of the latter is a landlord who prevents tenants from owning pets, which is his right.
As a libertarian, I maintain that if he wants to exclude group X (e.g. blacks), that is his right. Restrictive conenants have a cost, which granted might be less than their perceived benefit to some owners, at least ex ante.

Another point to consider is that just because an enfranchised majority votes for an office holder, what about the minority who didn't vote for the winner? Moreover, an office holder by himself doesn't set policy or pass laws in a democracy; he may well oppose restrictions of the kind in question passed by his colleagues.
The market is a society of contract, as opposed to a society of status; contracts are voluntary and are not shoved down someone's throat in a take-it-or-get-out-of-town manner, the way racist laws are.
A racist landlord who doesn't want to rent to blacks might earn lower rents than someone who would.
The market certainly offers disfavored minorities more options, including the potential to become capitalists, as David Beito has shown in his work. Markets undermine racism and work against it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/7/2006

If the government is acting at the behest of the franchised majority, then how can you distinguish its actions from the actions of that same majority as individuals?

Isn't it more logical to assume that they would puruse their same goals by other ends? For example restrictive covenants were used in many places by individuals to maintain segregation in the absence of sunset provisions.

Jason B Keuter - 6/5/2006


Of course not. I believe the best term is "pidgin- Marxism".


William J. Stepp - 6/4/2006

I haven't read the book, but it seems like the author sees racism as the driving force in the creation of these towns. While racism is an important factor, racists have to use the power of government to exclude minorities, both racial and religious. Local governments have to pass laws and ordinances excluding these groups, otherwise they would be free to travel where they please and live wherever anyone would sell or rent property to them.

As my fellow libertarians have long pointed out, governments have always been more racially exclusive than private institutions. They also have the institutional power to enforce their racism and to push the costs of racism onto people outside the locus of state power. In contrast, on the market capitalists must bear the cost of their own racism by, for example, rejecting a higher bid for property by someone of a disfavored race or religion.

I'll look forward to seeing the author's take on governmentally-imposed and -enforced racism.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/4/2006

On that, I agree with Jim Loewen.

James W Loewen - 6/3/2006

Jason, Jason, I'm not even a Marxist. Calm yourself!

Jason B Keuter - 6/2/2006

Don't bother arguing with Loewen - he's a religious fanatic (a strange cult known as anti-Americanus) and like all communistshe believes "traditional" American history is a psychological weapon supporting an ill-defined "elite" rule. This traditional history is really a bogeyman because AMerican historiography has always been a lively and contentious field that has been far from uniform in its views of the AMerican past; but, like all fanatics, Loewen reducaes the rich diversity of the American experience to a fairy tale manichean Marxist struggle.welcomes anything that destroys what he thinks are impure relics of the old regime because he sees in it a harbinger of further creative destruction that will usher in the rule of the dictatorship of the professoriat. Presumably then, any effort to preserve any kind of historical relic other than a partially burnt draft card is a weapon to perpetuate the unjust present. Loewen's logic differs little from the Taliban's rationale for blowing up Buddhist statues. Loewen would first have us view all American icons as loathsome, which would logically lead to their destruction and replacement with statues of professors addressing true beleivers with megaphones..or perhaps just cinder block apartments for the an immiserated proletariat.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/31/2006

Part of the problem here is that the Trust has worked very hard to be more than simply aniquarian. They actively look for places in which elements of past structure and design provide a living environment worth maintaining today. They see such an environment in this suburb

Unfortunately, when the area was created, good design included institutionalized bigotry. This presents a quandery: the Trust can't simply waltz around the origins of this suburb--that would be a denial of its history and the Trust's purpose in preserving history. However, that past does not mean, necessarily, that preserving this suburb is a bad thing. But it is a past that should be acknowledged in the process of trying to save the area, even though that may make it harder to save.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/29/2006

Well, yes, I do indeed think that you miswrote about "always". Were your universal not a contested one in years prior to 1917, there would have been no need for a Supreme Court decision and, as you know, there were subsequent decisions that followed Buchanan v Worley, so it continued to be contested. Your "always" is similar in an odd way to the claim of Southern segregationists that Jim Crow had "always" been our way of life. I'd respectfully suggest that "always" just isn't in a good historian's vocabulary or, if there, rarely to be used because what is in perpetuity is rarely of historical significance. But I also do care about the McMansions issue and am glad to know that you do, too. I do not think that the odious social practices of one-time occupants of historic sites ought exclude those sites from preservation. I don't think you believe that we should demolish surviving slave markets. To think we should would be to insist that the countryside be wiped clean of all physical reminders of our historical mistakes and tragedies.

James W Loewen - 5/29/2006

C'mon, Mr. Luker. Do you really think you have "got" me by pointing out that the world antedates 1917? Your point was that these policies "NOW" are illegal, so why should I beat Kenilworth up now about them. For me to show that they have been illegal for 89 years, yet were nevertheless enforced, informally and sometimes formally, until the recent past, and indeed may still be in place informally to some degree, is relevant.
Now, your point is, I suppose, that Kenilworth's exclusionary policies were "legal" from about 1895, when enacted, until 1917, Buchanan v. Worley. Perhaps, perhaps not. They contravene the 14th Amendment, passed long before 1895, and any case brought to the Supreme Court before 1917 would likely have been decided the same way. Indeed, some similar policies were found illegal back in the 1860s.
But we wander far from my article, from your original response, and indeed from any meaningful point. Just a meaningless "zing."
Something continues to bother you about my essay. I had thought it was that you inferred I didn't care about historic preservation vis-a-vis McMansions, but I do. If you will identify what it is, maybe I can reply cogently, maybe not. Surely it is NOT, however, that you really believe I miswrote about "always."

Ralph E. Luker - 5/29/2006

I am fully aware of Buchanan v. Worley. I have only just now learned that history is comprehended by everything since 1917. Er, unless the word "always" means something other than what I have understood it to mean.

Stanley N. Katz - 5/29/2006

Just to thank James Loewen for this. I attended New Trier High School, class of 1951 (just a year behind one Donald Rumsfeld), shortly after my family were part of the Jewish emigration to Glencoe and other increasingly open (to Jews) suburbs on the North Shore of Chicago. But Kenilworth was steadfastly restricted against Jews (not to mention Negroes, as of course they were called at the time). NTHS is situated on Winnetka Ave., across the street from Kenilworth, where I could not visit the houses of my (few) Kenilworth friends after schools, since Jews were not to enter Kenilworth homes. Not a pretty memory, but one which Should Not be Forgotten. Think again, Dick Moe.

James W Loewen - 5/29/2006

I don't favor McMansions, although applied to Kenilworth, the term is imprecise: Kenilworth already HAS mansions. The new residences are LARGER mansions. Kworth also has the social and economic power to deal with the problem. All it needs is to come to a consensus and enact safeguards. If it cannot, it's not clear to me that outsiders need to do it for them. It's not THAT valuable a historic resource.
The other half of your comment is mean-spirited. You need to know that towns that excluded blacks were ALWAYS illegal (see BUCHANAN V. WORLEY, 1917). Does this mean they didn't do it? Of course not. What my book shows is that THOUSANDS of towns did it, formally and informally, a MAJORITY of all towns in Illinois, for example. Hundreds may still, informally to be sure.
I suggest (former) sundown towns, including Kenilworth, need to (a) admit it, (b) apologize for it, and (c) state that they don't do it now and encourage people of color as new residents. A couple of sundown towns have done this. Kenilworth has not. The National Trust designation, sans any real history, is a backward step.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/29/2006

I have a question for you, Jim. Would you deny that tearing down older, less pretentious houses in order to build "McMansions" threatens to undermine the historic character of a community's appearance? That is an issue that is very lively in Atlanta these days, for instance, and it has relatively little to do with issues of racial exclusion or inclusion. In other words, the preservationist instinct isn't necessarily tied to a preservation of exclusionist policies. Does Kenilworth deny its historically exclusionist past? Aren't those policies now, as everywhere else in the United States, illegal? In other words, doesn't the piece that you've published here have more to do with getting more attention for your book than it may have as directing our attention to a serious historical issue.