Goshen, Ind., confronts its sundown town past

Hidden racism once was common, but Goshen may be the first city to formally acknowledge it

Apr 20, 2015 by and

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When Dan Shenk began researching the sundown town history of his city, Goshen, Ind., he was surprised how much information he found.

Dan Shenk, left, and Lee Roy Berry Jr. drafted a resolution to acknowledge the racially exclusive history of Goshen, Ind., where they both live. Goshen City Council passed the resolution 6-0 on March 17. On the table is the Jan. 20, 2014, MWR, with Shenk’s article on Goshen’s history as sundown town. — Sharon Hernandez/The Elkhart Truth

He read about it in sociologist James Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. The book defines a sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it.”

Goshen is home to a large Anabaptist population and many Mennonite institutions, including Goshen College, where Shenk’s father, Stanley, was a Bible professor for many years.

“This whole thing has been very eye-opening to a lot of people in Goshen, me included,” Shenk said.

After four months of research, Shenk wrote an in-depth article for Mennonite World Review, published Jan. 20, 2014, describing the ways leaders and residents tried to maintain Goshen’s nearly all-white population for at least the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

A reader asked him, “Now that we know this happened, what is Goshen going to do about it?” So he enlisted a local lawyer and friend, Lee Roy Berry Jr., to help take action. They wrote a resolution that eventually made its way to Goshen’s city council.

After a few months of community discussion, 30 revisions and navigating some resistance, the council on March 17 voted 6-0 to pass the resolution, acknowledging Goshen’s history as a sundown town.

Community conversation

Shenk wrote the initial resolution in early November. Berry joined him in presenting it to the city’s Community Relations Commission and the Goshen Ministerial Association, both later in November; the GMA unanimously approved the resolution in early December.

“From mid-November to mid-March nearly a dozen Goshen residents, including Lee Roy, offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final document,” Shenk said. “Many others wrote letters to the editors of two local newspapers and discussed the resolution in multiple settings, including five different meetings of the CRC. It really was democracy in action, a healthy community conversation.”

Loewen got wind of the process and agreed to come speak around the area in March.

“I think his visit helped by informing people what this phenomenon of sundown towns was,” Berry said. “It’s a hidden aspect of American racism. It’s something that people don’t acknowledge.”

He said it was important for Goshen residents to know this about their past.

“When you face current matters, it’s easy to get a false notion because you have a misunderstanding of your own history,” he said.

Berry grew up in Sarasota, Fla., another community with a significant Mennonite presence. He remembers a city his family passed through sometimes and never stopped — and recently found it on Loewen’s list of sundown towns.

“Somehow or another I got a sense that Myakka City was a bad place for black people,” he said.

He didn’t experience Goshen as a sundown town when he moved there in 1969 to teach at Goshen College, but the city’s exclusionary language wasn’t removed from its directory until 1979.

“There were incidents that I ran into, but no one told me that I couldn’t live in Goshen,” he said. He said he’s seen things change immensely for the better.

Model for others

Goshen is the first of the estimated 10,000 U.S. sundown towns where an elected body took formal action to acknowledge its racist past, as far as Loewen could tell Shenk.

On his website — sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntowns.php — Loewen recommends Goshen’s resolution as a model for other former sundown towns.

The site includes a link to the full text of the resolution.

The resolution chronicles and acknowledges Goshen’s sundown town status.

“It happened, it was wrong, it’s a new day,” the resolution ends.

“I am glad that the final draft of the resolution that was passed includes the word ‘wrong,’ ” Shenk said. “There’s a moral component to that. It’s not a direct apology, but it has the moral element to it.”

Berry and Shenk both spoke at the city council meeting when the resolution passed. About 20 others also spoke in favor of it.

A few people also spoke against the resolution. Some said it dug up old hurts that would be better forgotten. One man was upset that it mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called a “criminal and a womanizer.” Others felt elected officials spent too much time and energy on it.

With such resistance and questions to take into account, the process of reviewing the resolution took longer than expected. And the final version wasn’t worded quite as strongly as Shenk had hoped.

“But I recognized the need for compromise — in the best sense of that word,” Shenk said. Berry and Shenk believe overall that the experience was good for the community and an important step forward.

“I don’t think any other society labors as much to laud its freedom,” Berry said. “But I think it is also true that no other society given that kind of commitment has violated the principle more.”

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