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Emotion & History Clash In Debate Over Town’s Alleged Past "Sundown" Status

by Connie Sartini
Groton’s Annual Fall Town Meeting opened on October 3 with an outdoor session held behind the Florence Roche Elementary School. There were 168 voters present to address a compact warrant that included several consent agenda items.
     The first article on the warrant was moved by Selectman Josh Degen and sought “to establish from October 3, 2020 forward that Groton, Massachusetts rejects wholeheartedly the designation as a “Sundown Town”, and further, that Groton, Massachusetts welcomes people of all races” generated discussion as to the historical accuracy and apparent lack of factual documentation that Groton was ever a Sundown Town.
     Degen, who is also a member of the Diversity Task Force, said, “Groton has had occurrences of both hate related speech at our schools and racist graffiti scrawled upon town-owned structures. This summer the “N” word was prominently painted at our country club and a swastika upon our roads.
     In the aftermath of the graffiti incident at the country club, I was approached by a resident who told me that Groton was still considered a Sundown Town. I began to research both its connotation and history as it related to Groton.” According to Degen, that resident wished to remain anonymous.
     Degen explained, “A Sundown Town means a place where from sundown to sunrise no black people could be seen on the streets of a town. I spoke to our Town Manager about this. He contacted the Attorney’s General Office to see if a previous Town Meeting long ago had ever adopted this designation. To date they have yet to confirm or deny any knowledge of such a vote. Research led me to an esteemed researcher, writer and former professor at the University of Vermont, James Loewen.”
     According to Degen, Groton along with another dozen or so Massachusetts cities and towns appears on Loewen’s list of potential Sundown Towns. Loewen wrote the book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, which was released in 2005 Town Meeting formally adopted the Sundown Town designation, we (Town Meeting voters) the chief legislative body can correct this should it have been adopted in the past. The wording of this article is important as it clearly states this.
     “Article 1 is our opportunity to rescind any actions of the past regardless of where the Sundown Town designation originated. While we cannot change the past with an affirmative vote, we can change the future. Please join me in a unanimous vote in full support of Article 1 of this Town Meeting Warrant.”
     Resident James Moore pointed out that even if it cannot be confirmed or denied, Groton appears on Loewen’s list, although it is not known if the town ever adopted sundown laws. “This is our opportunity to rescind the past.”
     Moore is also a member of the Diversity Task Force, and provided the background that his great grandfather was a slave, that a member of his family served in the Army, while another was a teacher for 56 years. “If Groton was a Sundown Town, these members my family would not be welcome. The question is not why should we approve this. The question is ‘Why not?’”
     Following Degen’s remarks, resident Russ Harris rose to offer an amendment to postpone action on the article indefinitely in order to allow for adequate time for investigation into the accuracy and credibility of the Sundown assertion.
Harris said, “Normally when there is a change to our town’s bylaws or a controversial Article is placed on Town Meeting warrant, the sponsoring board holds at least one public hearing to solicit public opinion and feedback before submitting such an article on the town meeting warrant for ratification. Unfortunately, that did not happen for Article one on this warrant.” He pointed out, “During this pandemic, when public debate at Town Meeting must be severely restricted, such public hearings become even more important, serving as an important substitute for having a full airing of the warrant article at Town Meeting.
     Harris stressed, “There is no objective, historical evidence that Groton ever was a Sundown Town. Therefore, this article should be withdrawn until the historical evidence is made available. If we as a people profess to believe in the truth, why would we accuse our own town’s forebears of something that has no basis in historical fact?
     “Groton is fortunate to have extensive histories and town records going back to its earliest days. There are authoritative histories by Caleb Butler, Dr. Samuel Green and Father William Wolkovich. I am familiar with this history. There is ugliness as well as much good in Groton’s history. But I have not seen anything to suggest that Groton was ever a so-called Sundown Town or supported such policies.”
     Harris noted, “When new police officers and firefighter are appointed by the Select Board, a photograph of each newly-appointed and sworn officer is often taken in front of the marble plaque in Town Hall lobby commemorating all the Groton men who gave their lives in the Civil War, a war to end slavery. It is very hard to believe that a town where so many men were willing to die to end the stain of slavery would ever allow so called-sundown policies in their town.”
     Harris questioned, “Where did this accusation come from? It feels like the Select Board has set up a straw man so we can all feel good knocking it down becauseof the current political climate. This is very poor reason to rush to judgment  about our town. Why have these troll-like rumors been given credence by putting this article on the warrant? Why hasn’t there been any opportunity for public input on this inflammatory accusation?” he asked.
     He cautioned, “If this article passes, it will forever be held up as evidence that Groton was once a Sundown Town, even though all signs are that this calumny is false. We need to see real documented evidence before taking a vote based on unsubstantiated Internet rumor. Let’s take one step at a time and not make a rush to judgment. If Groton truly was a so-called Sundown Town, I want to know it as much as anybody and it should be revealed. But if it is not true, this article is a lie.”
     Town Manager Mark Haddad defended the issue of a public hearing. He said that all the warrant articles were reviewed on August 24 Select Board meeting and again at their meeting on August 31.
     The moderator advised Harris that it is not possible to direct the Select Board to review the evidence, hold public hearings and come back to another town meeting, although this is exactly what he had hoped would happen. Harris then moved that this article be postponed indefinitely. “Groton is better than this. We can do better,” Harris said.
     Resident John Amaral advised the audience, “If we don’t have direct evidence [of Groton being a Sundown town], we need to make this clear.” He pointed out that there are records at the State House.
     Town Moderator Jason Kauppi pointed out, “This vote is non-binding, and it is not law.”
     A Wintergreen Lane resident said he believed, “Harris stated the issue correctly,” adding that this name was used in Connecticut newspapers in the 1880s. He stressed that in his neighborhood there are multiple religions, colors and ages and “we all get along and treat each other with respect. That’s the kind of townIwanttoliveinandIdo live in. I don’t want to see Groton labled as a Sundown Town.”
     While discussion continued, John Amaral, along with Degen worked on an amendment by inserting “IF SUCH A DESIGNATION EVER APPLIED,” after the word Sundown Town and voters approved it unanimously.
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