North Central News

Looking to history to find answers: Students present their research on Naperville as a “sundown town”

Laura Pohl

Jun 24, 2022

Student researchers at North Central College investigated Naperville’s history as a “sundown town,” adding their voices to conversations about how this history might still affect the city today. The term “sundown town” came from implicit or explicit rules that Black people had to leave a city by sundown or face possible harm and discrimination.

A team of student researchers presented their findings in a poster presentation at the 2022 Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research on these topics: religion, Black-owned businesses, public schools, laws/policies and zoning/housing. The team included Camille Alanis ’23, psychology; Julia Babinec ’22, sociology and Spanish; Kaitlyn Boelter-Eberhardt ’22, political science and global studies; Mitrese Smith ’21/M ’22, marketing; and Haven Denson ’22, social entrepreneurship.

The students looked at topics that meshed with their personal interests and majors. They investigated the role of churches in the city’s racial history and current practices; the impact of laws and policies; how zoning impacts sociodemographic populations; the challenges for Black business owners; and how Naperville’s public schools are addressing educational issues regarding racism and inequality.

“This project is ongoing—we’ve merely skimmed the surface,” said Raleigh Blasdell, associate professor of sociology and the students’ research advisor. “However, we’ve already learned so much that can benefit the Naperville and surrounding communities.”

Blasdell pointed out that while this project examines Naperville’s history and how it is still impacting modern practices, “sundown town” policies are not unique to Naperville.  “Thousands of ‘sundown towns’ existed across the United States, and it is estimated that more than 200 of those were in Illinois. The purpose of this research is not simply to revisit or exploit history, but rather to empirically assess what policies and practices can be enacted to address inequities in society.”

The team employed a variety of methods to collect data, including in-person visits to local organizations and exhibits and consulting U.S. Census Bureau records, FBI Uniform Crime Reports, print media, Internet sources, interviews and oral histories.

Looking at Black-owned businesses was an area of particular interest for Smith. As of summer 2021, she didn’t find evidence of any Black-owned businesses within a mile of downtown Naperville.

“I had heard of sundown towns but only on shows that I would watch about Black culture so I wanted to learn more,” said Smith. “I learned about the discrepancies my culture had endured more in depth and was then able to apply that to my [MBA] degree. More Black businesses in Naperville will bring more income into the community and give people who are like me a chance to survive in these ever- changing times.”

Preliminary results were presented to Illinois State Rep. Anne Stava-Murray of Naperville, who voiced interest in partnering with the team for a joint town hall forum to further disseminate their research. “It was important to the group that the posters used at the Rall Symposium address ‘What We Can Do’ regarding each of the topics we explored,” said Blasdell, who hopes to continue the project with new researchers once the current team graduates.

“Following the next phase in our research—which will include oral history interviews with current and former Naperville residents, members of clergy, and business owners—we will also be presenting the research at various academic conferences,” said Blasdell. “Using the findings of this research will involve building relationships with religious leaders, city planners, business owners, elected officials, educators, and community members. The research team can assist in recommending and developing evidence-based policies to improve inclusion and opportunities for historically minoritized people in our community.”