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Should a former sundown town apologize?


Christopher P. Lehman January 8th, 2014

It’s rare for local governments or the federal government to apologize for discrimination against a group of people.

The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal, and the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation. But these laws did not come with acknowledgments that the country erred in allowing those practices and hurting its own people.

The city of Edmond prohibited African-Americans by ordinance from the city limits for generations.

Royce Adamson’s 1940 postcard for his café proudly emblazoned “No Negroes” as an attraction for prospective residents. No African-American attended school there until 1974, and no African-American family lived there until 1976.

When I arrived with my family in Edmond in 1976, I was two years old. For a long time, I was the only African-American boy and one of two African-Americans in my grade in elementary school. I grew up thinking that I was a pioneer, one of the first African-American boys to do this in Edmond or that in Edmond.

It never dawned on me that the reason I was often the first was because of all the other African-Americans before me who wanted to live in Edmond but could not.

What if Edmond apologized for its past as a “sundown town”? There is certainly precedent for such an act. In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized for the federal government’s doctors who allowed sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Ala., to die from syphilis without treating them or giving them penicillin between 1932 and 1972.

He said, “What the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

An apology from Edmond’s mayor or its city legislature or both would be a significant, meaningful gesture because cities have long-lasting reputations. I once interviewed for a job in Wilmington, N.C., and a diversity consultant there warned me of the absence of African-Americans in town. When I asked why, he said it was because of the 1898 race riot there.

African-Americans were chased out of town and, as of the 2002 interview, had barely come back.

Edmond’s population has diversified since 1976, but its reputation and its history have yet to be fully addressed by the city government itself, the government that kept out African-Americans.

An apology would be unusual and different but invaluable and healing.

If Edmond were to be the first city or town in Oklahoma to apologize for its “sundown” past, it would set a template for the rest of the state. Sometimes being the first can be a good thing.

Christopher P. Lehman is a 1991 Edmond Memorial High School graduate, a professor of ethnic studies at Saint Cloud State University, the author of Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley and a former summer visiting fellow at Harvard University.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

 
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