Not Joe Lieberman's Nadir

Stay in Town

Prometheus 6:

The first step of a 1000 mile journey | Prometheus 6: Bluffton, he says, was no doubt a sundown town. So are 65% of all incorporated municipalities in neighboring Illinois, according to his research...

Small Indiana town singing tune of racial, ethnic harmony Updated 8/4/2006 2:10 AM ET By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY: Local folklore has it that the small town of Bluffton, Ind., once had an ordinance to keep blacks out, Mayor Ted Ellis says. He never found proof but says he wondered why Bluffton remained 96% white while many other cities became more diverse. "I always thought that Bluffton was no more hostile than other communities around," Ellis says. [P6: You were right.]

Then came an anonymous letter about 18 months ago. It was a photocopy of a newspaper clipping about the opening of a restaurant in this town of 10,000 people about 25 minutes south of Fort Wayne. A hand-printed message above the photo of the restaurant owner, a college professor who is a Sikh, read, "We don't wear turbans in Bluffton... we speak English." Ellis was appalled. "I just felt I had been hit in the gut when I got that," he says. He invited the businessman to his state of the city address, seated him at his table and got his first standing ovation in 10 years as mayor. "The leadership of the community has its heart in the right place," he says. "But it certainly illustrated that no matter how nice we are to one another, there still is an underlying current."

Encouraging dialogue That's why Bluffton was among the first to join the National League of Cities' Partnership for Working Toward Inclusive Communities. The initiative encourages cities to start a dialogue about diversity and acceptance and to put up signs promoting their efforts: "Welcome. We are building an inclusive community." Sixty-eight cities have joined. "Inclusiveness means different things to different people," Ellis says. "In Selma (Ala.) and Little Rock, it's a long history of racial tension. But if you live long enough, everyone has been excluded at some time." Sociologist James Loewen wrote Sundown Towns, a history of thousands of towns and cities that excluded African-Americans and other minorities after sundown. Although racial exclusion is most often associated with the South, Loewen found that the sundown town was a Northern invention. In his book, eyewitnesses tell of sundown signs in more than 150 communities in 31 states. One sign bluntly stated, "Whites only within city limits after dark." Others in Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee depicted a black mule and used profane language to warn African-Americans to get out of town by sundown.

"Most all-white communities in the United States are all-white on purpose," says Loewen, a visiting professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "For decades, formally and informally, they kept out people of color, particularly African-Americans," he says. Bluffton, he says, was no doubt a sundown town. So are 65% of all incorporated municipalities in neighboring Illinois, according to his research. That's why Bluffton's decision to put up signs stating that it's building an inclusive community is full of symbolism. The city plans to put up signs at the three state highway entrances to the city and two at each of the town's eight schools, Ellis says. "It's very important," Loewen says. "Every sundown town and every sundown city in America should take steps."