2.21.2006

A request for help

I'm currently working on a relatively large project to map population movements in Upstate New York through census data and I'm hoping for your assistance.

The idea behind the project was germinated through a fantastic book entitled "Sundown Towns" by James Loewen. In his book, he tracks the "ghettoization" of Northern Blacks between 1890 and 1950 (and continuing today) through a process called "Sundown Towns." Simply put, he hypothesizes that during this period the majority of incorporated places outside of the South managed to ban African Americans. Many of them used outright violence to drive away black communities, which had been welcomed with open arms during Reconstruction. Since then, they have used a combination of violence, legal bans and subtle pressures to keep their towns all-white. The effect was to force blacks into the inner cities and constrain their settlement elsewhere. Thus the ghetto was a creation of white pressure and violence, not a choice by the black community.

Since I grew up in what had been until recently an all-white town (Johnson City today is: "88.86% White, 3.09% African American, 0.19% Native American, 4.93% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 0.84% from other races, and 2.03% from two or more races. 2.23% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race." from Wikipedia), I was captivated by the book. Unfortunately, Loewen is from Illinois and focuses primarily upon Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and the Ozarks; it appears that these areas were hotbeds of the Sundown phenomenon, but it was not constrained to them. For example, he quotes North Tonawanda and Tuxedo Park in New York as bening virulently anti-black Sundown towns for generations.

I am trying to track down more information on this great shame to our nation and try to uncover how much it affected our region in particular. Why are cities like Buffalo (37.23% Black), Syracuse (25.35% black) and Rochester (38.55% black) famous for having black folk* while neighborhing suburbs like North Tonawanda (97.86% white), Solvay (95.81% white) and Penfield (93.48% white) are lily-white?

The assistance that I am asking from you folk is twofold: 1) Does anyone know where I can acquire copies of the census, in particular old censuses (I'm looking for 1860, 1890, 1930, 1970 and 2000)? 2) Does anyone have personal experience with this phenomenon? Did you grow up in an all-white town? Are you familiar with life in an interracial city? Also, eventually I will need saints to proofread the research if anyone is interested in that. Thanks for any help you can give.

-Posted by Jesse

*Though interestingly, not even near a majority. Binghamton is considered by many Johnson City (88% white) and Endicott (91.65% white) residents as being dangerously black, but only 8.41% of its population is black and 83.18% white.

9 comments:

Frances said...

I am not sure what would be the closest place to you to find census records, but all regional national archives have them (there is one in NYC), as well as many repositories for the federal / local government. Many libraries have census records, but smaller libraries may not. Unfortunately, you are out of luck with the 1890 census....it burned in a fire.

thisbiochemicallife said...

Jesse,
I myself use the census collection at Ancestry.com for genealogical purposes, although it can be quite expensive for access. That collection contains every page of every federal census from every state for 1790 to 1930 (censuses aren't released until 72 years after they are taken). The censuses are also indexed, which is really convenient. Unfortunately, they do not have many state censuses. You can find the federal censuses on microfilm from the New York State library, who will probably have some of the state censuses. A lot of censuses are being indexed online as well, usually associated with specific counties (see rootsweb.com to find indexes for counties, or do an online search). And lastly, many county courthouses have the original census records available for research. One final note, the 1890 census was 95% destroyed in a fire in the early 1900's, one of the most devastating loses of information to genealogists in history.

Joe said...

I'm not sure if we grew up in an all-white town, I remember lots of laotians, south-eastern-euros, armenians, black folks, thais, Indians etc. What do you think JH?

Jesse said...

Joe, I wrote: "Since I grew up in what had been until recently an all-white town" Johnson City is not an all white town today, however, my dad remembers that as a child growing up here there was only one black man allowed to live in town, the window washer. My grandmother does not remember seeing any black folk in the area as a child. I confirmed this with the village historian who says that local realtors and owners of rental properties conspired with a "Gentleman's Agreement" to never open the town to African Americans; she also says the KKK was active against not only blacks but also immigrant populations and that there were marches, night rides and cross burnings in the first half of the 20th century.

This exclusion seems strange to some, considering that JC was not a WASP town, but instead populated by Lithuanians, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Ukranians and an occasional Armenian. Yet this type of systematic, quiet, repression was quite common in suburbs and planned towns like Johnson City; I don't think the Endicott-Johnson Shoe factories hired blacks and they weren't welcome in town.

Jesse said...

On a similar vein, did you ever notice that there were no Jews in Johnson City, even today, and they instead largely settled in unincorporated Vestal? Unincorporated towns historically have had more difficulty keeping out minorities.

joe said...

on a different topic... I was talking to my dad about sewage treatment and he told me he used to walk across leaching fields when he was a kid, i asked him if he ever fell down in one and he had this to say:

Joe: You ever fall down in the field?
Dad: No, but I did fall in an open sewer once.
Joe: What are you talking about?
Dad: I lived in a segregated trailer park when my dad was in the army in virginia and one of the Lady's Slaves cut the rope while i was swinging over the sewer between the black and white side of the park. I fell in and it was a traumatic experience.
Joe: Lady's slaves?
Dad: Yeah that's what we used to call the black kids.
Joe: Who's the lady?
Dad: She owned the trailer park.
...I laugh for a minute...
Dad: What? It was 1959 and I was 6 years old.

Reginald Beaver said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Natalie said...

The last comment was removed because frequent York Staters contributer Joe Sullivan can't keep his pseudonyms on topic.

Though Reginald Beaver is an awesome pseudonym.

Thank you,
The Management

Linda D said...

Jesse, I bet the U at Binghamton has the manuscript censuses. Another place that has census data are the Mormon Church's Family History Centers which are scattered around the state and country. There's one in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, and I bet there's one around Binghamton as well. They are free, even to non-Mormons.

I have a very sneaky suspicion that you are right about the "Sunset Towns". The only small town/rural area that I know of that had significant black population prior to WWII is the hamlet of Selkirk in the Town of Bethlehem, Albany County. It was the home of a major railroad yard, and probably home base to Pullman car porters. I lived in the town of Coeymans, south of Bethlehem for 2 years, and noticed the number of African Americans living in the area was probably more than I would have expected for rural/small town New York.

When I worked for NYS in Albany, travel to various state institutions was part and parcel of the job at times. One of my co-workers was a black lady who was a several years older than me, so she would probably have been an adolescent in the late 1950s. She would travel to the urban sites by herself, but she wouldn't travel to the small town or rural sites alone. I had always thought that her fears of traveling alone in rural upstate NY probably stemmed from either experiences in the South or from tales she'd heard about the rural South (her family was from Albany), but in light of this, maybe her fears had a source closer to home.

One more point. I grew up in southern Erie and Cattaraugus County where there were, and still are, virtually no African Americans with the exception of some in Olean (and in the state prisons in Collins!). The same is true in Chautauqua County where I live now with the exception of Jamestown (historically, the tiny black community in Jamestown was quite active in the abolitionist movement along with the many Quakers in the Busti area) and Dunkirk.

There are many more Puerto Ricans in southern Erie and northern/western Chautauqua Counties because they came in the 1940s and 1950s to work on the truck farms. I don't remember any Puerto Rican children in my classes at North Collins Central in the 1950s although there were plenty of Puerto Ricans living in the numerous migrant labor camps scattered around the town back then, but those places were "out of sight, out of mind" to us. The few African Americans that lived in the area almost always lived outside of the villages, and especially around borders of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation.