Julie McDonald Commentary: Are White Supremacists Welcome Here? Is Lewis County Racist?


When I read about the primarily masked white supremacists heckling people at the LGBTQ+ Pride event in Centralia last month, it sparked memories of a newsletter I received years ago.

I’m a packrat with a one-terabyte hard drive, so I dug into my folders and searched. Sure enough, up popped the Sundown Town Newsletter from January 2008 and an email exchange I had with the University of Vermont author of a book that listed Chehalis as a sundown town.

A what?

“Sundown towns, also known as sunset towns, gray towns or sundowner towns, were all-white municipalities or neighborhoods in the United States that practiced a form of racial segregation by excluding non-whites via some combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, or violence,” according to Wikipedia. “The term came into use because of signs that directed ‘colored people’ to leave town by sundown.” 

James W. Loewen, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont, was the bestselling author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” and “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.” He also authored the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” published initially in 2005 and republished in 2018. He passed away in 2021.

What sparked my interest at the time was his listing of Chehalis as a sundown town.

“Sundown towns are communities that for decades were — and some still are — all white on purpose,” Loewen wrote in his newsletter. “A community can be a sundown town even though it has a few African Americans.”

A website at https://tinyurl.com/5bpcws3k depicts a United States map and clicking on each state lists the Sundown Towns there. In Washington state, it lists Bellingham, Brewster, Chehalis, Chelan, Colville, Kennewick, Montesano, Olympia, Richland, Seattle, Shelton, Tacoma, Vancouver and Walla Walla.

Loewen contended racial exclusion occurred nationwide and described such instances using personal narratives, data analysis and history to describe it in his book. He listed his purpose in publicizing sundown towns as the desire for communities to admit it, apologize and change.

I was curious as to why Chehalis was listed as racist when it was a twin city to Centralia, a town founded by an African American, the son of a slave, so I emailed Loewen. He graciously responded to my questions, admitting that he didn’t know much about Chehalis but suggested I ask longtime local genealogists about what he considered the community’s racist past. 

“Although Chehalis appears to have a significant Black population, they are overwhelmingly male, and are mostly residents of the Green Hill School, an institution for juvenile offenders,” the Chehalis listing states. 

A former resident stated, “Aside from a couple of students with Native American heritage and the children of a few local Jewish merchants, there were no ‘minorities’ in town. I do not even recall any Chinese restaurants there.” 

That’s how Grace M. Cho, a Korean-American who penned a 296-page memoir, “Tastes Like War,” published in 2021, saw her hometown in the 1970s and 1980s. 

“The racism in Chehalis was not of the colorblind variety,” she wrote. “All colors but white were highly visible. You could count the non-white people on two hands, a few fingers each of Black, Brown and Yellow.”

Although Chehalis didn’t have many minorities, I asked Loewen whether Mexican Americans are considered minorities for the purposes of his research.

“Not much,” he said. “There are at least two towns that kept out Mexicans and Mexican Americans for decades, one in Colorado, one in California, and doubtless many others, but my research is very incomplete.”

When I mentioned Dr. Isaac Pope had served for years on the Chehalis City Council, he said, “I cannot swear that ANY town is sundown as we speak, because of course some African American household might have moved there last night with no problem. And I do suggest that most West Coast sundown towns stopped barring Blacks at least by 1992 if not considerably earlier.”

He also noted that Centralia had been a sundown town, according to “one uncorroborated hearsay report,” but it’s not listed on the website as one.

“I never list based solely on census data, not even census data for decades,” Loewen said. “Always at least anecdotal evidence. And anecdotal evidence, if good, suffices.”

After our discussion, I wasn’t entirely convinced about the validity of sundown towns and the inclusion of Chehalis on the list, so I never wrote a column about it. At the time, I considered it a bit of liberal poppycock, but I also viewed Lewis County through rose-colored glasses — then.

Not any longer.

After President Obama was elected and police brutality spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, I saw Facebook posts locally depicting rifles pointed at Black Lives Matter signs. I’ve read more racist and homophobic posts on social media than I ever imagined I’d see. The respect I thought we held for one another has diminished significantly in the past decade, replaced by bad mouthing, bullying and ridiculing of people who hold different viewpoints or choose different lifestyles.

Was I surprised to see white supremacists in Lewis County? No. 

I hope and pray white nationalists in the neo-Nazi hate group Evergreen Active Club don’t find like-minded people locally, but the vandalism that occurred in the weeks after the June 10 Pride Month event in Centralia indicates they might have.

Vandals splattered black paint on the LBGTQ+ “Friendship Fence” in Chehalis, smashed in four full-sized windows at a Morton business bearing Pride flags, busted windows in the Lewis County Dignity Guild’s new Chehalis headquarters and bent a flagpole bearing a Pride flag, which was stolen.

Those are hate crimes designed to intimidate people because of their “race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.”

Hate should have no home in Lewis County. Neither should white supremacists, neo-Nazis, bigots and racists.

When a friend in my writers’ critique group produced Referendum 101 petitions, I signed without hesitation. The attempt to overturn Senate Bill 5599 is controversial, but it doesn’t need to be confrontational, which is what the far-right Lewis County Republican Party did by deliberately setting up a booth near a drag show in Chehalis to collect signatures. 

I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, a Republican who noted in a written statement on June 13, “Last weekend Neo-Nazis and leaders of the Lewis County Republican Party harassed Pride celebrants in Centralia and Chehalis. This band of bigots does not speak for me, nor do I believe it speaks for any fair-minded Republican. Pay no attention to the claim that they were just there to protect parental rights. They were there to intimidate a minority group and hijack the legitimate effort of parents to eliminate political coercion from our public schools. When leaders of our Republican Party make common cause with Nazis, they forfeit their claim to speak for us. Their leadership is malignant, repulsive and deserving of public repudiation.”

I may not agree with legislation advocated by the LGBTQ+ community, such as Senate Bill 5599 passed by the Legislature earlier this year, but we can disagree respectfully.

The controversial bill lets teenage runaways evade their parents and remain under state custody if they are seeking abortions or sex-change medical procedures — all without the knowledge of parents. 

I see that as state-sanctioned child abuse. 

Previously, shelters notified parents within 24 to 72 hours of a runaway’s presence — unless the child faced abuse or neglect at home. Now, the state will hide runaways if the children are seeking abortions or “gender affirming treatment” (hormones or surgery).

Children embroiled in teenage angst or depression may question their sexuality, but enabling them to undergo medical procedures without parental consent is obscene. The legal age to buy a package of cigarettes or consume alcohol is 21 — but teenagers can decide to chop off body parts? What kind of brain believes this is right?

It will come back to haunt the state as it facilitates the anatomical alteration of teenagers’ gender, possibly rendering them infertile, only to find they discover in their 20s or 30s that they no longer identify with the opposite gender. The damage is done — the state is guilty. Lawsuits will abound. And residents will pay the price — not the lawmakers who approved such a measure.

I hope the referendum receives the 200,000 signatures needed by July 15 for placement on the ballot so Senate Bill 5599 can be repealed by the voters. To sign the petition, contact https://www.reject5599.com/.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.