Slingshot: Truths James Loewen Taught Me in Brea and Beyond
Earth, receive an honored guest. James W. Loewen is laid to rest.
On Thursday, the famed sociologist and historian who authored the bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me died from cancer.
It's a day that Loewen had time to prepare for. Before passing away, he authored the humorous, philosophical Up a Creek With a Paddle and noted that it was the sole memoir he'd be sure to complete given the gravity of his diagnosis.
With help, Loewen also revamped his online, interactive database on "sundown towns" across the United States of America. Such post-Civil War communities were best typified by an all-White population and a practice of letting Black visitors know they had to be out of city limits by dusk--or else.
I've crossed paths with Loewen and his work a few times in media. The first occasion came as a young KPFK-LA radio producer in 2005. I took on Loewen's thick tome Sundown Towns ahead his interview on the program I worked on. With a hectic schedule of appearances in Southern California that year, the scholar with a white, Lincoln-looking beard came into the studio for a pre-recorded conversation well after my working hours.
Alas, I never got to meet the man but he did sign my copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me and several other of his books from my coworkers. The experience, according to Loewen, made him feel like a bit of a cult hero.
And he was!
Loewen's seminal work in 1994 declared war on the U.S. history textbooks numbing students across the nation with lessons so riddled with inaccuracies (and omissions) about race relations so as to not ruffle the enshrined tale of America.
But a little factoid from Sundown Towns gnawed at me beyond his best-known work. I learned from the book that Brea had been one such community as did others.
The historical knowledge I gained served a bit of OC historical trivia for many years, but little else. That all changed in 2017 with the fight to rename Fanning Elementary in Brea.
Years before that, Gustavo Arellano reported in his award-winning series on OC Klan members that a credible membership list pegged William E. Fanning, the school's namesake, as a onetime Klansman. The story lingered as part of a larger irritant to the county's orange crate historians until teachers, parents and students launched a campaign against racist tributes in the wake of the Charlottesville Race Riot.
In response, a historian with the Brea Museum authored a review for the Brea Olinda Unified School District that deemed Arellano's historical journalism to be mere "editorial commentary" outside the true rigors of historiography.
After Arellano resigned from OC Weekly, I picked up on the story. My colleague suggested I contact Loewen, himself, since the Brea Museum report also casted doubt on the city's sundown past. Loewen agreed to weigh in and criticized the report while affirming Arellano's journalism.
The scholar endured attacks on his credibility from Brea residents and even false claims of his supposed recantations. Loewen wrote a letter to the school board in the leadup to a vote on renaming the school that made his conclusion clear.
"Former sundown towns need to take overt steps to break their white supremacist tradition," he wrote. “Changing the name of Fanning Elementary School . . . will signal [to] everyone—residents and nonresidents alike—that the city has moved beyond its sundown town days.”
In 2019, the board voted to keep it, as I reported in an OC Weekly cover story that year. Only last summer, amid America's racial reckoning, did a majority of trustees vote to rename Fanning Elementary all while avoiding the uncomfortable history that made it an issue in the first place.
After the Brea battles, my last exchanges with Loewen came over email in March. I just finished his memoir and shared my thoughts on it. Loewen asked me to keep in touch and urged that I stay on top of Brea. His other request was for me to give away my copy of Up a Creek With a Paddle to someone who hadn't read it. I told him I'd do one better by buying new copies so that I could donate them to libraries and LibroMobile, an indie bookstore in Santa Ana.
I'm on the task, but it won't be the sole one in Loewen's memory. There's an obligation to deepen the research he laid out on sundown towns. I intend to do that in my local history going forward.
And then, there's a task Loewen set out for everyone just days before his passing. He criticized laws passed and considered in several states that would essentially hamper teaching about America's unsavory episodes of past racism. Beating back that impulse is what helped inspire Lies My Teacher Told Me, which is as relevant now as ever.
"If you have not read it, do!" Loewen tweeted. "Then get in trouble. We need more trouble!"
- Gabriel San Román
By the Byline
I'm enjoying my new role as a staff writer at TimesOC, which means that these Slingshots will arrive in inboxes every two weeks for now.
After many onboarding tasks, I penned my first article which appeared online last week but is the centerpiece story for the TimesOC Sunday edition this morning.
Ahead of Friday's O.C. Zine Fest, I tell the backstory about how the cool kid librarians at Anaheim Central Library helped it become the adopted home of the event as well as the only library in O.C. with a circulating collection of zines!
Gracias for reading all the way to the end! Now, don't forget to tell your friends to join the San Roman syndicate by subscribing!
Lead photo: Loewen, RIP / YouTube screenshot