Eliot Jaspin and James Loewen: On Ethnic Cleansings ... Their Dispute

Historians in the News

Last week, I wrote about about the controversial book Buried in the Bitter Waters by Cox Washington correspondent Elliot Jaspin, who blasts the Cox-owned Atlanta Journal-Constitution for allegedly whitewashing the racial cleansing of Forsyth County, Ga.

I mentioned a blog comment in which James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns, found it "astonishing" that Jaspin hadn't credited his book.

Jaspin responded with a comment to my blog, saying "Prof. Loewen was less than forthcoming about our conversations."

I then sent Loewen an e-mail, inviting him to join the fray. He sent me an e-mail today and asked me to post his response, which follows:

The Virtues of Giving Credit

Of all books ever published in the United States, only two directly treat the subject of Elliot Jaspin's new book at length. One, When Hatred and Fear Ruled by Millie Meyerholtz, treats Pana, Illinois, which drove out its black population in 1899, an expulsion Jaspin does not cover. The other is my book, Sundown Towns.

It treats eight of Jaspin's twelve expulsions at some length and mentions the other four (two are only mentioned as sundown counties). As he implies, our books complement each other. His provides greater detail on twelve expulsions; mine describes expulsions from at least 30 additional counties and cities. Sundown Towns is also broader in that it treats places that prevented blacks from entering from the start. Also, I mostly use town rather than county as unit of focus, hence come up with far more locales. And it is analytic as well as descriptive.

Nevertheless, we do both discuss expulsions. Since my book came out two years before Mr. Jaspin's, in newspaper parlance I "scooped" him.

In the greater scheme of things, this is not so significant. There were so many sundown towns and counties in the U.S. — by my estimate about 10,000 — that room remains for many books on the topic. After all, there have also been about 10,000 lynchings in American history, and about 1,000 books on the subject. I am happy that Jaspin's book came out. I look forward to a fourth and fifth and sixth book, so we can all learn more about this astonishing topic.

However, it is still astonishing that he did not cite my work. He claims this is because he never used it. If so, he should have! His analysis of the causes of the expulsions would have benefitted from my wider discussion (chapters six, "Underlying Causes," and seven, "Catalysts and Origin Myths" of Sundown Towns), for example. Still more importantly, the greatest weakness of his book lies in his thinking that he has discovered most if not all expulsions. He writes:
Like an archipelago, the counties where racial cleansings occurred form a rough arc that begins in North Carolina, crosses the Appalachians, and extends into the Midwest.
While the expulsions he found do lie in that crescent, that's because he looked in that crescent. Had he looked farther — had he cited my book — he would have found expulsions in Oregon, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, and many other places.

This is important because most of his expulsions occurred in formerly slave states. His only exceptions are two in Indiana, one of which, Jaspin emphasizes, was just 33 miles from Louisville, Kentucky. Once again, as with Hollywood's depiction of this phenomenon, we can infer that severe racism in America is mostly a Southern problem. But it isn't. Sundown towns and expulsions are not "long ago and far away." Many took place far from the South.

They are also not so long ago. Many took place more recently than Jaspin's book implies. His chapters are in chronological order from 1864 to 1923; chapter 12 then drops back to 1906. Many expulsions took place after 1923, however, some as recently as 1954, and whites have retaliated violently against families trying to move in as recently as the last fifteen years.

I think Jaspin avoided citing Sundown Towns because his story line is not only that many places expelled their black populations, but also that Elliot Jaspin brought this to light. Indeed, the first sentence in his book reads, "The story of how I found America's racial cleansings begins ..."

As soon as his newspaper stories came out, I put up a link to them at my website and had a conversation with him inviting him to link to mine. He expressed no interest in so doing. Any reader of Sundown Towns might want to learn more on the topic, was my reasoning, like any reader of Jaspin's work. Besides violating accepted rules of scholarly citation, Jaspin's more insular approach also leads him to violate standards common in journalism, or so I infer from Jerome Week's article, "Taken Aback, Taken Aback."

Let me close positively. Buried in the Bitter Waters makes an important contribution to the story of America's racial cleansings and resulting sundown towns. Not only is there room for us both on this topic, there is room for both our books on your bookshelf. Indeed, isn't it interesting that there are only two?
Read entire article at Doug Monroe in Atlantic Magazine

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