A popular misconception is the belief that racism was at its peak during the Civil War and reconstruction period, but James Loewen said in the period of American history between 1890 and 1940 the country was more racist than any other time.
Loewen, an award-winning author, spoke about southern Illinois and its role in the Civil War at the John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro Wednesday night.
He presented material from his new book, “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth about the Lost Cause.”
“Slavery had quite a history in southern Illinois,” Loewen said.
He said many of the early region settlers came from the South and brought their attitudes about slavery with them.
He called the period of 1890 through 1940 the “nadir,” or low point of race relations.
During this time, white people living in small rural towns and cities systematically forced African Americans to move by using deception, intimidation and violence. These towns became known as “sundown” or “whites only” towns.
In these towns, only low-paying menial labor was available to African Americans, and they weren’t welcome after dark.
The legacy of this period of history is still seen today in rural America. By Loewen’s count, there are still 506 sundown towns in Illinois, many of which are located south of Springfield.
“In 1890, racism wins … and it’s been on the defense since 1942,” Loewen said. “We’re not out of racism yet.”
Lowens also spoke about how history is taught in America’s classrooms.
He said teachers mostly teach out of textbooks, which are full of errors and missing large chunks of information. One of his earlier books, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong,” and it won the 1996 American Book Award.
Bernard Kerkhover, a retired history teacher who travelled from Rookwood for the presentation, said many still feel outcasted in small southern Illinois towns due to the stigma of sundown towns.
“Everyone knows about the ‘sundown’ towns around here,” he said.
Derek Martin, assistant professor of sociology, said he’s used Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” as a textbook in some of his classes.
He said when history textbooks contain mistruths — such as George Washington never telling a lie and Betsy Ross sewing the flag — they damage the credibility of our collective history.
“The book focuses on lies of omission and what the consequences are for our students,” Martin said. “Loewen loves this country like a parent loves his child.”
Martin said Loewen’s research on sundown towns in southern Illinois was thorough and accurate.
“It’s all white, and it’s not by accident,” he said about the numerous small towns in the southernmost counties of the state.
Loewen also spoke about General John A. Logan’s conversion from white supremacy to fierce champion of African American civil right after the war.
“I think the Logan story is terribly important,” he said. “I think John A. Logan started out as the most racist white person in this country.”
Logan, born in 1826 in what is now Murphysboro, began his political life as a democrat. He joined the Union Army when the Civil War began and organized the 31st Illinois Volunteers. Following the war, he resumed his political career as a republican and declared abolitionist.
He said Logan’s decision to break with his past influenced southern Illinois politics throughout reconstruction.
“In the 19th century, the Democratic party was the party of white supremacy,” Loewen said.
Loewen’s presentation was the first in a series of bi-monthly programs the university museum is planning to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Future programs include a presentation by Carbondale author Herbert Russell on his new book, “The State of Southern Illinois: An Illustrated History,” and a program on the evolution of music during the Civil War.
Other works by Loewen include “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong;” “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism;” and “The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White.”