Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Eric Eid-Reiner

From about 1890 to 1930, hundreds of U.S. towns forced out their black residents either by legal fiat or through intimidation and harassment. These places were known as “sundown towns” because of the signs they posted warning black people not to be caught in town after dark. Eric Eid-Reiner ’11 wrote his honors thesis on the topic.

What prompted your interest in sundown towns? In 2008, I attended a conference on white privilege where I saw the film Banished and learned that in many towns and counties, people of color have been run out in order for a place to become all-white. The towns often remained that way for many decades due to their reputation as not only unwelcoming, but often dangerous and life-threatening places for black people (especially after dark).  Sundown towns captivated my interest as a widespread and important phenomenon that had not been the subject of a lot of research yet.

How did you conduct your research? I made extensive use of documentaries, journal articles and books that examined the history of certain sundown towns, obtaining resources through Wheaton’s Interlibrary Loan Office from as far as Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana and Texas. In addition, through the Florida State Library and Archives, I was able to obtain 1,000 pages of primary source documents from the debate there in the mid-1990s on reparations for the Rosewood Massacre.

What happened in Rosewood? Rosewood, Florida, was a thriving, mostly black community of about 120 people. In 1923, after a white woman in a neighboring town claimed to have been assaulted by a black man, the local officials zeroed in on Rosewood. A white mob ran the black population out of town over the course of a week and burned down nearly all the houses. At least two white people and five black people were killed. The black families who escaped Rosewood never returned to a town that, even today, hardly exists anymore.

Was justice ever served? Survivors and descendents of former Rosewood residents sought reparations from the state of Florida in the early 1990s. After a long, contentious battle and an extensive, state-funded study, one of the proposed reparations bills finally passed. The state formally acknowledged the Rosewood massacre and the government’s complicit role in it, and the living survivors and descendents were awarded compensation. It was a historic victory.

Another side of you: I’m a musician, and I learned a lot through my piano lessons and music theory courses at Wheaton. I co-founded the Contra Dance Club and enjoyed seeing people on campus becoming increasingly excited about this traditional, participatory dance form. One of my favorite music memories of Wheaton is of teaching some simple New England circle dancing to children at the Amen Nursery School and Norton Head Start Center as fieldwork for my “Teaching Music in the U.S.” course with Professor Ann Sears. My senior recital was also meaningful: it included a set of classical pieces, some ragtime tunes—three by Scott Joplin and one I wrote—and folk music from New England, Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton.