by Connie Sartini
Groton Select Board opened the closed 2020 Fall Town Meeting warrant to add an article at the request of Selectman Josh Degen and the Diversity Task Force of which he is a member.
Because Groton’s name has appeared on a list as a possible “Sundown” town that was assembled by a University of Michigan assistant history professor Stephen Berrey, Degen’s goal is to clear away any possibility that this designation was ever part of Groton’s early records.
Degen said, “If a previous Town Meeting vote was ever taken, or if there was any such decree, the 2020 Fall Town Meeting needs to rescind any such vote forever more and remove it from our town.”
Sundown towns were municipalities that prevented African-Americans or other minorities from lingering after dark. According to a New England Historical Society article, “Beginning in the 1890s, New England’s small towns and rural communities drove African-Americans into urban ghettoes. According to James Loewen, a sociologist who taught at the University of Vermont, he has discovered thousands of Sundown towns throughout the United States, including New England.
“Small towns kept out not just black people, but Jews, Catholics, Greeks, Italians, Indians, even trade unionists and gays. They used violence and intimidation and restrictive covenants and mortgage practices.” (See “Immigrants and Yankees in Nashoba Valley, Massachusetts” by William Wolkovich-Valkavicius (1981), also Groton Town Historian’s records of KKK cross burning on Gibbet Hill in 1920s.)
There was a migration of African-Americans who once lived in rural areas across New England to big cities. There was also an increase in the number of African-Americans coupled with a migration from the south to the north. Writes Loewen, in “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism”, (published in 2006) 14 Maine counties had at least 18 African Americans. By 1930, only nine did. Five black people lived in Lincoln County in 1930, where 26 had lived in 1890. Hancock County had 30,000 people in 1930, but only three were black. Forty years earlier, there had been 56.
Vermont had no all-white counties until 1930. New Hampshire had no all-white counties in 1890, but two in 1930.
The article pointed out that following the Civil War, waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Canada and southern Europe moved into Yankee mill towns. The influx of immigrants sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan — and created sundown towns, though Klan membership fell almost as quickly as it grew in New England.
The Civil Rights movement then started to change all that with laws against racist policies. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, family status or national origin.
But attitudes didn’t necessarily change.
As recently as 1973, nearby, all-white Ashby voted at Town Meeting, 148 against to 79 for, inviting people of color into town. The idea came from Unitarian minister Philip Zwerling following a Martin Luther King Day speech, and he worked with parishioners to see if there was something they could do, and that resulted in a resolution that Ashby would welcome black people and people of color to the town. However, that session of the Ashby Town Meeting voted almost 2 to 1 against this resolution.
With the article on the Groton Fall Town Meeting Agenda, voters will have the opportunity to stand and ensure that people feel welcome in the community of Groton and that any historical racist laws will be rendered null and void from our town bylaws.