In April 2015 La Crosse resident Shondell Spivey spoke in the oral documentary project Hear, Here about what he experienced downtown in 2012. After a physical fight occurred in a bar with both White and Black men, Spivey watched as La Crosse police arrested a handful of Black men around him but no white men. When Spivey shared this observation to a few police officers he was also arrested. In recent data the city of La Crosse arrested Black Americans at a rate eight times higher than non-Blacks, yet some White La Crosse community members actively work against fixing this problem. After Spivey's story was published in Hear, Here, prominent figures like established business owners, appointed officials, and heads of city departments made moves to protest and discredit his experience. Some even went so far as to request the street sign be taken down. One prominent figure approached the project director Dr. Ariel Beaujot to explain why he thought the story was problematic, then hurried to explain that he was not racist because he works against racism in his professional position. It confused me that someone would not only want to silence Spivey’s this story but then also continue to believe that they were not racist. It is as if this man thought that by acknowledging that he was engaging in prejudiced behavior, he was somehow suddenly not enacting it. Of course, Dr. Beaujot refused to remove Spivey's story from the project.
Then in July 2015 the sign was stolen and Spivey's story was purposefully silenced. It became clear to me that at least one individual in La Crosse wanted to continue ignoring the reality of the community's problematic racial climate. My question became: what has happened in La Crosse's history to create this present-day attitude and behavior? I found that after 1890 select White residents used strategies to make the city of La Crosse dominantly White. Behaviors and attitudes that fueled this can be seen in newspaper articles, oral histories, Black migration rates, the population disparities. With Spivey’s story and the community's reaction to it evidences is that they're lasting effects, which make this historic narrative a problem today for Black Americans.
In looking at anti-Black racism in La Crosse, the state of Wisconsin, in the Midwest, many communities share similar historic narratives to La Crosse. In certain communities it is evident that groups of White residents purposefully work to keep their towns and cities primarily White. These are called Sundown Towns. Sundown Towns were and are communities that purposely stayed all-White by not allowing African Americans to settle in them. Some of these communities can be identified by signs that were posted at city limits. However, many sundown towns didn't have these signs and were still just as exclusionary to African Americans.
Sociologist James Lowen is the lead researcher of these communities. Lowen examined Sundown Towns all over the US. However, he points out that there are very few in the traditional South. Many Sundown Towns were and are in the Midwest, and many are undiscovered in Wisconsin. White residents in Sundown Towns use various strategies to keep their communities all-White. Many Sundown Towns were created through 1) violence, 2) the threat of violence, 3) ordinances, 4) by developing new suburbs, or 5) in freeze outs. It is through this fifth strategy that I found La Crosse purposely made itself dominantly White. Nothing I found in my research evidences that the community explicitly defined itself as a Sundown Town, as some communities did. However, there are many instances of racist and discriminatory attitudes and behaviors enacted against Black Americans that can nonetheless make La Crosse considered a Sundown Town. To name a few, there were petitions signed to remove Black soldiers from a local military base after World War One, segregation signs posted downtown in the 1920s, a local Ku Klux Klan group service, refused at stores, and derogatory language used in newspapers and nicknames for parks and landmarks.
It is also important to look at Black migration to and from La Crosse, as well, as population disparities. Historian Bruce Mauser describes the early settling areas of Black American migration to La Crosse. He says “if there are opportunities in La Crosse for White settlers in the Antebellum period, there were also attractions and opportunities for African Americans. Most of them came as freeman from New England and the Central States or as runaways between 1852 and 1906, La Crosse was on average one to two percent Black. However, between 1900 and 1905 over 3,000 jobs were lost in La Crosse due to the lumber industry collapse. This caused a chain reaction and economic turmoil in La Crosse.
By the 1910 census, the Black population was at 0.002%. Seventy years later in 1980, La Crosse was 99% White, 0.003 % Black, and reported to be the fifth-Whitest metropolitan area in the nation. The Black population remained under 1% of the total population until the 2000 census. White residents of La Crosse, unfamiliar with diversity beyond Euro-American backgrounds, encouraged the small population of Black Americans to remain small by discriminating against people of color and directly enacting practices to keep La Crosse White. We see this through various examples. One instance I found is in an oral history that was recorded in 1975. This is a quote from local resident Archie Curry while he expressed his views of big industry in the city. He mentioned that the people he had talked to did not want big industry, outside of Trane. When IBM was interested in La Crosse he remembers people said things like “but we wouldn't want something that big back in this town. If we get too many industries in this town that [expletive] will move in.” Currie ended with “they couldn't even be polite enough to use the word Negro or Black. I've heard a lot of different run done against ethnic groups.” What Curry shared here illustrates the reality of what he observed among White working-class residents.
This general attitude expressed by White Americans fueled freeze outs and worked to further the disparity in La Crosse's racial diversity. Though Ku Klux Klan activity did not determine a sundown town, they did often perpetrate and sometimes lead a community to be all-White. There are few records of the KKK in La Crosse but they do exist. In 1922, La Crosse Tribune article explains there were fifteen thousand KKK members in Wisconsin, five hundred of which were in La Crosse. It also reveals the intense activity the group had here, as you can see in the highlighted sections of the image. At the time La Crosse had about 30,000 people, which perhaps makes the number 500 seem less powerful. However, the 1920 census lists about forty Black Americans, which means that this article was accurate—there were twelve KKK members for every African American living in La Crosse. This was a majority that could undoubtedly use their power as they pleased, although I have found no primary sources that give the examples of this occurring.
The La Crosse area also had many instances of newspapers and public landmarks using derogatory language when it came to naming or reporting about African Americans. One prominent African American in the area, Nathan Smith, lived on a farm near West Salem. His farm was widely known as “[expletive] Hill” and was referred to this way in newspapers. By using and defending themselves using this derogatory language in such a public forum, local newspapers created an unwelcoming environment for African Americans and set an example that encouraged White Americans to continue using such anti-Black language. It was this kind of behavior that contributed to La Crosse's freeze-out.
James Lowen argues that although some Sundown Towns begin changing in the 1970s to the 1980s others still had their signs posted at city limits that proclaimed their community as a Sundown Town well into the 1990s. This means these communities today are still directly impacted by these recent methods of discrimination used to keep them White. And because there were so many Sundown Towns throughout the nation, a majority of Americans either grew up in these communities, near these communities, or directly impacted and surrounded by people who did. This recent historic narrative directly impacts the racial climate in La Crosse today.
We can see this not only with Spivey's Hear, Here story and the city's Black arrest rates, but also in UWL hate incidents, where White students draw an African American being lynched on a dorm whiteboard, and White students support the display of the Confederate flag as freedom of speech. It is also seen in the community with 2016 La Crosse Tribune articles, in which people leave racist and unwelcoming comments to people of color. My declaration of La Crosse Sundown Town, however, is not one of pure hopelessness. Rather it brings an opportunity to the La Crosse community to have a discussion about its unexceptional history, take action, and move forward to be a community with equity, a community for its own people.