Honda's All-American Sundown Town

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Mr. Loewen is a sociologist and author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, published by The New Press.

Even before Honda announced Greensburg, Indiana, as the site for its new factory, National Public Radio was on board:  Adam Davidson on "All Things Considered" said Greensburg "could be a movie set for an ideal American small town."  In its announcement, Honda continued the accolade, saying Greensburg provides an "outstanding community of people." 

      Honda left out a key word.  Greensburg is an "outstanding community of white people."  That's because Greensburg is a sundown town -- an all-white town that for decades was that way on purpose.  Sundown towns derive their name from the fact that many of them, including dozens in Indiana, posted signs telling blacks not to "let the sun go down on you" while inside their corporate limits. 

      In 1906, Greensburg's white residents drove out most of its black population.  By 1960, the entire county, which had boasted 164 African American residents in 1890, was down to just three, all female.  In the 2000 census, Greensburg still had only two black or interracial households among 10,260 residents. 

      As I show in my book, Sundown Towns, the only way that a town that large could stay all-white for decade after decade is with enforcement -- formal or informal. 

      While Honda was choosing its site, its executives had to have noticed the racial composition of Greensburg and Decatur County.  Similarly, the management of Krispy Kreme Donuts had to have noticed the racial composition of Effingham, Illinois, in 2002, when it chose that town, 180 miles west of Greensburg, for the factory that now makes most of its donut batter.  Before 1950, Effingham posted the notorious sundown signs, and while they came down by 1960, the town's policy did not change.  African Americans were prohibited beyond the railroad station and bus station. 

      As of 2000, Effingham had 44 African American residents, so perhaps it is putting its sundown past behind it.  One can only hope so, because so far as I can tell, Krispy Kreme has made no attempt to humanize Effingham with regard to race relations.  Hopefully Honda will.  Otherwise, the 2,000 jobs it will bring to Greensburg will be for whites only (and perhaps Mexican Americans). 

      Surely Honda owes the nation -- and not just African Americans -- a statement telling why it chose Greensburg, despite (or because of?) Greensburg's racial past.  Honda should also disclose how it plans to make its workforce look like America while locating in a town that for many decades kept out Afro-America.  And NPR might explain how a sundown town can be an "ideal American small town." 

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James W Loewen - 11/10/2007

There are sundown towns in VT, and in the UP of MI, and in ID, and other cold places distant from the South. If you would read my book, you will learn that distance and temperature have nothing to do with defining a town as a "sundown town." You will also learn that such places as the UP of MI had more blacks as a % of pop. (or even absolutely) in 1890 than half a century later, yet they were no warmer back in 1890, and no closer to the South. "Clever" posts like these are no substitute for knowledge.

James W Loewen - 11/10/2007

We don't know each other, Mr. Keuter, so you have no excuse for the disrespectful "nickname." And no, you might NOT suggest what my next project will be. If you have a problem with a teapot, make your point. I infer, you think that choosing to locate a huge auto plant in a place that guarantees almost all the jobs will go to whites, thus rewarding them for keeping out blacks, is a tempest in a teapot. I do not.

James W Loewen - 7/31/2007

Sen. Byrd has done EXACTLY what I suggest sundown towns should do to get past their discriminatory past: (a) admit it ("I did this."), apologize ("I did it and I'm sorry."), and change ("I did it, I'm sorry, and I don't do it any more."). And his record leaves no doubt that he has left his past far behind. If Greensburg had done this -- indeed, if Greensburg WOULD do this -- there would be no problem.

Nick Hanrahan - 5/2/2007

NE Washington, DC. For over a decade. Does that fit your criterion?

Nick Hanrahan - 5/2/2007

NE Washington, DC. For over a decade. Does that fit your criterion?

James B. Treece - 1/12/2007

Oscar Chamberlain asks, "Does Honda, as a matter of course, pick areas with small black populations, or is this isolated?" And Glenn Scott Rodden writes, "Honda and Toyota pick communities that are isolated because they are attempting to avoid unions, not because they want to avoid a racial minority."
Actually, the answer to Mr. Chamberlain is, Yes. And Mr. Rodden's analysis is only partly correct.
In 1988, Honda paid what was then the largest EEOC settlement ever--$6 million-over its discriminatory hiring patterns at Honda's Marysville, Ohio, factory. The multimillion-dollar settlement was based on Honda's red-lining of Columbus, Ohio, and its minority residents.
Honda wanted to hire locally. So it in essence took a drafting compass to a map of Ohio, and drew a circle around Marysville. If you lived within that set radius (I forget the exact distance, but let's say 25 miles), you got preference in hiring at the factory. Except for the segment of the circle that overlapped Columbus. That portion, which would have encompassed a population that had more minorities than the nearby Columbus suburbs and farmlands, was excluded.
Was it race-based? Absolutely. Oh, Honda tried to claim it wanted farmers who were used to hard labor (and, unstated, unlikely to favor unions). But a member of the state economic development council told me that when Honda's suppliers came to his office for help in setting up plants in Ohio, the carmaker had already told them which towns to choose. In essence, he said, Honda didn't just want whites, it wanted workers of German-American ethnic background. It had decided those folks were better workers.
This pattern of discrimination was not unique to Honda. University of Michigan Profs. Robert Cole and Donald Deskins, Jr., proved that Japanese carmakers' first round of factories in America were located in counties that had fewer minorities than the state overall, and that the factories then hired proportionally fewer minorities than lived in those counties. ("Racial factors in site location and employment patterns of Japanese auto firms in America," California Management Review 31, 1 (fall 1988)).
To their credit, Japanese carmakers have since learned to work with American minorities. Nissan, for example, had a weak race-relations record at its Smyrna, Tenn., factory. But it has hired an overwhelmingly minority workforce at its newer Canton, Miss., plant.
However, Honda appears to have lagged its peers on this issue. It has been sued twice by employees since the EEOC settlement, once by its manager of diversity affairs who alleged that the company would not give her the employment data she needed to do her job. Honda gave her the title and mandate to make sure its hiring was color-blind, but wouldn't give her the tools to follow up.
That Honda would revert to its old form, with no apparent public statement that it expects to hire a multiracial workforce in Indiana, is truly a step backwards.

Charles Margolin - 12/14/2006

What African-American neighborhood does Dr. Loewen live in? And surely he lives in an African-American neighborhood because he wouldn't be so hypocritical as to not ingest what he prescribes for others.

Middle class neighborhoods such as Baldwin Hills (L.A.) wouldn't count for our purposes. Instead Mattapan (Boston) will do nicely. There Dr. Loewen can put in practice all the things he taught in his race relations course at the University of Vermont. For 20 years, no less.

Jason Blake Keuter - 7/21/2006

Might I suggest that Mr. Loewen expose the seemy racist underside of some of the least popular products on Antiques Road Show? Little grannny Mable thought she was buying a Patriotic Teapot - little did she know it was made by an indentured servant! And I've dug up the documents to prove it!

Robert Charles Roland - 7/17/2006

Does the fact that Vermont is now 97% caucasian down from 98.4% in 1990 mean that it is a Sundown State?
If such a term exists or is there another reason, the temperature in winter or the distance from the South.

s w - 7/17/2006

it is pretty upsetting that you would call Greensburg all-white. i lived in Greensburg for 22 years (through 2000) and i would hardly call it all white. in fact, i think there are many people there who would take offense at you calling them white. it would be more accurate to say that the town has almost no one of African descent.

it always felt odd that there weren't black people in my town. i knew the stories about greensburg having one of the last public lynchings in the US in the early 1900s. i had a few classmates in gradeschool who were quite racist, though they were the minority (and i doubt they really understood what they were saying).

but, by the time i reached highschool, the town was starting to feel more diverse. our family doctor (from when i was quite young) is Indian, we have many friends in our neighborhood and in school who are Japanese, Phillipino and Viatnamese.

what i notice more now when i go back is the stare. my wife is Japanese and we get "the stare" nearly everywhere we go in indiana. mostly, it is curiousity, but there are times when you feel the menace. yet, each time we go back, it is less.

i'm not sure what point i'm trying to make, besides the fact that greensburg has faces of many colors and creeds, but not all. it could certainly work on its outside reputation and an apology for the purge of 1906. i've heard the stories that people from outside of greensburg tell and i have no doubt that at one time it was a sundown town, but am doubtful that it should be considered the same now.

Victor J Bueno - 7/13/2006

You know...it's been a very long time since I lived in Greensburg, and being from Mexican American decent, was not that bad. Although, I found NO ONE ELSE in town that was other than WHITE, I did not find it that bad. I am disappointed though that anyone would really have anything to say bad about the town, since I see that they do embrace multi culture these days. Mexicans, Blacks, I have seen our minority people. Society must not ASSUME that just because Greensburg's population mainstream is White...does not make it an oddity, since it is like every other small town in America. Bring On ANY challenge to the Greensburg folk....we will stand above all other.

James W Loewen - 7/12/2006

Many corporations DO care about the race relations in their communities, and about the natural environment, etc. For example, before Quaker Oats moved into Danville, IL (not far from Effingham, Goshen, and Greensburg, the towns under discussion here), it asked Danville to pass an open housing ordinance, partly so its black employees could be assured they could find places to live. Danville did. Honda needs to follow suit. And yes, I have in fact argued for better race relations in Indiana and look forward to doing so again. But I am not the issue. Sundown towns need to take steps to rid themselves of their exclusionary past -- THAT is the issue.

Mike West - 7/11/2006

Honda exists to make a profit selling cars. It isn't a social welfare agency, which Mr. Loewen thinks it should be. Honda likely choose the town because they thought the citizens would make good employees and, help the company keep it's status as a top car seller in the U.S.
If Mr. Loewoen is so concerned about Indiana race relations, perhaps he should go to the area and, preach his message?
Better yet, the Blacks (and, whites) of rural Indiana need to look seriously into how they are being cut out of the economic arena (by corporations and, big government) but, that's another story.
Here's an interesting blog to start with: http://mutualist.blogspot.com/

That way, they wouldn't have to worry about the big corporation comming around to save everyone. That's the only real issue in the Honda/Greensburg story.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 7/11/2006

Sen. Robert Byrd - not Bird - was awarded the AHA's first annual Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award in 2003.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 7/11/2006

Loewen makes a huge leap to suggest that Honda should have done some sort of historical study of Greensburg's past to uncover its identity as a Sundown Town. Is he suggesting that it is racist today? That would seem to be a more valid question for Honda.

By Loewen's standard, Sen. Robert ("Sheets") Bird should be drummed out of the Democrat Party. (He was an enthusiastic and successful recruiter for the KKK.) Yet Bird has a leadership role in the Senate and receives awards from societies of professional historians. Perhaps Loewen should righteously gore that ox first!

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/10/2006


That is certainly one of their goals, probably the primary one. But--depending on the state--a preference for the rural may lead to other forms of discrimination that are no less real for being unintended.

More generally, I don't want to squelch consideration of sundown towns. I certainly grew up in an all white Dallas suburb. The hired help was indeed out of town by sunset except for a scattering of service industry persons. I don't think it was law, but it was the fact of the case. The patterns of settlement these restrictions created are almost certainly still haunting us. I am glad to see research on it.

However, it is quite another thing to argue that a company is playing upon that legacy without further evidence. That is what I question here.

Steve Hollowell - 7/10/2006

Hope that the good news from Greensburg can help the sales of your book.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 7/10/2006

Honda and Toyota pick communities that are isolated because they are attempting to avoid unions, not because they want to avoid a racial minority.

William J. Stepp - 7/10/2006

I'm not surprised to learn that there was a Klan presence there in the 20s, although the more recent events are news.
I don't have family there anymore and have no reason to go back.
Racism still exists in northern Indiana, as it does elsewhere.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/10/2006

Your chastising of Honda would be more compelling if had other data.

Examles of questions you need to answer to begin to make a case:

Does Honda, as a matter of course, pick areas with small black populations, or is this isolated?

Are these towns, including Greenburg, in largely white areas, or is there a significant minority population within a reasonable commute?

Do state governments tend to put forward white areas in these competitions? If so, why?

David Hostetter - 7/10/2006

Mr. Stepp,

You need only refer to "Culture for Service: A history of Goshen College, 1894-1994" to be reminded that Martin Luther King himself could not stay within Goshen city limits when he spoke at the college in 1960. He stayed in Elkhart that night because of Goshen's restrictions. Furthermore, the Goshen News has reported on a Klan rally that was held just blocks from the courthouse in the early twenties. Racist signs and customs were reinforced with a public cross burning. The shooting of a black man in Elkhart by a klansman early in the 21st century shows that racism persists in Northeasten Indiana. I hope your are taking steps to counter that trend.

James W Loewen - 7/10/2006

The Indiana "page" of my website will be up by Sept. 1.

James W Loewen - 7/10/2006

I'm glad to know that you are NOT claiming that Greensburg was not a sundown town. Now, to Goshen: there is no doubt that Goshen was a sundown town for decades. If you ask old-timers in your family, you will learn this for yourself. It is mentioned in my book; I spoke at Goshen College and learned details about the town's practices from many people while there. I myself am Mennonite (historically, not religiously!) and was sorry to learn that Menno Simons's teachings against slavery did not prompt Goshen's Mennonites to take any action against the sundown policy of the town.

William J. Stepp - 7/10/2006

The town is Goshen, which is in the middle of Amish/Mennonite country.
Nearby Elkhart always had a black population, as did South Bend.
By the way, your claim that I'm implying that Greensburg (in southern Indiana) was not a sundown town is bizarre and flunks logic 101.

When I clicked on Indiana at the map at your site, nothing came up.
I look forward to your "proof," which sounds suspiciously like guilt by association, a sort of liberal McCarthyist smear of a very nice town.

James W Loewen - 7/10/2006

Oops. My website is www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/

James W Loewen - 7/10/2006

By invoking "the town of 20,000 residents in northern Indiana" where he grew up, Mr. Stepp implies that Greensburg was not a sundown town. I challenge him: tell me the name of that town, and I'll prove it to have been a sundown town, either here or at my website, www.uvm.edu/`jloewen/.
(Incidentally, as Stepp surely knows, a sundown town need not have passed a law to merit that term. See my book for more.)

James Jude Simonelli - 7/10/2006

Sun Downing has gone on for years in the inner cities.
In the 1950's in Brooklyn (New York) I remember the "rules" were you could walk through a neighborhood but you better not "stop".
This snowflake face walked through Harlem many times to go from 125 Street stop on "A" train to Randall's Island for track meets.
Same held true for non-Italians who walked through our streets at the convergence of the Greenpoint, WIlliamsburg, Bushwick sections of Brooklyn.
Same old, same old....

William J. Stepp - 7/9/2006

I don't know why Honda chose Greensburg, but it's a safe bet it had nothing to do with its racial history. If Loewen knows otherwise, he should produce the evidence, maybe minutes of board meetings or other tangible evidence that racism entered the firm's calculations.
Any bets?

If Honda owes the nation an explanation of why it chose Greensburg, then surely it also owes the nation an explanation of why it chose the U.S., which after all, maintained slavery as the law of the land for decades. And why stop with Honda? If Ford or GM wanted to build a plant there (or anywhere else in the U.S., including towns that never had sundown provisions), why wouldn't they owe a similar explanation for the same reason?
Honda also has no obligation to make its plant look like America, whatever that means.

This might come as a shock to Loewen, but there are many towns in the U.S. that never had sundown laws and that never had a black resident, such as the town of 20,000 residents in northern Indiana I resided in for a few years as a kid. He might consult the Nobel laureate economist Thomas Schelling's work for an explanation of how this could happen in the absence of sundown institutions.

What NPR owes America is an explanation of why it takes taxpayers' dollars.