Letters to the Museum

Sundown Towns

Dear Dr. Pilgrim:

First, I'd like to say that I attended the Cultural Diversity Conference at Kalamazoo Valley Community College this past Friday, March 27 along with my 16 year old son, Michael. We both enjoyed your presentation very much. I registered my son for the conference in hopes it would open his eyes a bit. We live in Kalamazoo but the Mattawan school district. Mattawan is a small town, made much larger in recent years by the addition of several rural plats. While the school system itself is now classified as "A" for sports conferences, it remains a very small, sheltered town, and I wanted my son to hear you talk so he could learn a little about the racism you grew up with.

I, too, grew up in a very racist environment, and if it weren't for the upbringing my parents gave me I'm afraid I would have absorbed the mentality of those around me. I spent my youth in Coldwater, Michigan and while it outwardly pretends to be an open-minded community, upon each visit "back home" I continue to see the subtle but still evident signs that those of color aren't wanted. It wasn't until I read James Loewen's "Sundown Towns" that I realised that I was raised in such an environment.

I am, I believe, a couple years older than you (born in 1956) and I vividly recall the stories about the black family traveling to wherever that stopped off I-69 to eat supper at the local "Burger-N-Chix" (our forerunner to the "McDonald's" that exists there today)...they were served but the man working the counter opened the hamburger bun and ceremoniously spit onto it, closed it up, and slid the tray to the customer. That story, whether true or not, stayed with me all these years and served as a barometer for the hatred that ran through that town. Comprised of mainly rural farmers, the mentality was very small-town and white bread. People of any color were met with such disdain they did not live long in the area. In the early 1970's there were several Arabians living in town, working at the local steel foundry. They lived in a run-down area of town referred to the locals as "A-rab Park", several young men all crammed into homes built to hold a small family. The high school I went to was all white and I did not even see a black person except on TV until I was 15 years old and was taken to Battle Creek to see an orthodontist. I briefly dated the only man of color in town when I was a senior in high school and was teased mercilessly for it. He was Panamanian but was referred to as a 'nigger' by the locals because he had dark skin and kinky close-cropped hair. You can imagine what I was called. I felt fortunate to have parents that brought me up to believe that there were no differences in people irregardless of their skin color. My mother was born in Gary, Indiana and both her parents were extremely racist and she knew it was wrong and chose to teach her own children acceptance. My father grew up in Kalamazoo which was also a racially mixed town and he, too, was a very open-minded man. How they ended up living in such a backward town is mainly because my father had difficulty finding work during the 1950's and he ended up employed as a psychologist at the Coldwater State Home, one of the few places that offered employment at that time in his chosen field.

My question to you is, do you have any Sundowner town signs? I vaguely recall some Burma Shave type signs on US 12 heading east that said something along the lines of "If you can't read this you'd better run". I was very young at the time and was fascinated by the faded yellow signs with the hand lettering that were set several yards apart and always tried to quickly read one before we came upon the next while riding in the backseat of my dad's old Plymouth. It never occurred to me what these particular signs meant until I read that book. I am fairly certain they were local Sundown Town signs and given the climate I grew up in, it made sense. I had always wondered why my town did not have any blacks, or mexicans, or a large enough population of jews to have a synogogue. I know now that the few that tried to settle there were mistreated so badly they moved on rather than try to put up with the racism.

I moved to Kalamazoo right out of high school because I could not stand that small town and it's narrow ways. I had thought, had HOPED, that the years gone by had changed the thinking there. Soon after I moved I heard that Fort Custer State Hospital had closed down and many families that were employed there had to move to areas that had state facilities to stay within the state Department of Mental Health. This brought several black families to town and while visiting my parents they informed me that these families were treated as outcasts and many gave up and moved on because they could not stand living in a town where they were openly (but subtly because of the law) scorned.

Just 2 years ago I worked with a social worker that told me her first job after graduating from Western Michigan University brought her to Coldwater to work for Branch County's Community Mental Health Department. Soon after she moved to town, she was grocery shopping in the local Kroger's and a local came up to her and asked her if she was "lost", implying that she was in a town she did not "belong". This shook her up so much she quit her job and moved back to Kalamazoo. That story made me sad, because it happened only about 5 years ago. For all the talk I hear from people that live in Coldwater, blatant racism still exists, and it makes me very sad.

My own son has aspirations to attend Ferris and I hope he is able to. He said it would be an honor to be in one of your classes. He has friends that listen to rap and hip hop and along with it I have heard some of them use some objectionable language. I abhor this kind of talk and my son knows it. To my knowledge he does not participate in it. When we got home from the conference, later that day I saw him looking at your website. I hope he takes some of what he heard that day and passes it on to his peers. They are generally good kids; none of them he hangs with are mixed up with drugs or even smoke cigarettes. They are, however, greatly influenced by the music they listen to: T.I., Lil Wayne, Busta Rhymes, Eminem, and this saddens me. The lessons these artists convey about women especially saddens me. While my son knows I don't care for their references to women as "Ho's" and "Bitches" he still continues to listen to that music because ALL his friends do. I can only tell him my views and hope he absorbs some of them. I never hear him malign women in his conversations so I am fairly certain he is OK...but it still bothers me.

I appreciate the work you are doing to teach young people especially about intolerance and I wanted to thank you.

Kathleen K.
Kalamazoo, Michigan

-- March 30, 2009


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