Loveland, Colorado Splinters Over Racist Sundown Town Past And Increasingly Diverse Future
A large, mostly white crowd gathered in the Loveland, Colorado, council chambers for a recent city council meeting. Some heckled and bickered during the nearly 90-minute public comment period; police intervened at one point.
Many were there to oppose the city council considering measures to give non-white and LGBTQ residents more of a voice, to make city processes more equitable. Most said the idea was “divisive.”
“I'm not a fan of multiracialism to be truthful. You can call me a racist if you want to,” an older white resident told city councilors.
A “rattled” Lynn Adame, 53, called in to speak after. Her mind was on her grandson — he is Native American and Mexican like her, but also Black and white: “the epitome of multiethnic.”
“But you know what? I'm glad he spoke up,” she said of the older man who spoke before her. “Because this is why we need this DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) work. Because there are people with his mentality and his thoughts out there, and they are affecting people like me.”
Several moments during the last two years have reflected race-based problems in Loveland — at city council, school and library board meetings, during protests and in Facebook groups. Often, a key point of contention for some residents is whether racism even exists in the city, or ever did.
The debate raises a question: why is Loveland so white?
'The racism was so known back then'
Adame’s family has been in Loveland for at least a century. Racism contours tales of their history: housing discrimination, “whites-only” signs in store windows, slurs and, particularly in the last few years, being told to “go back” to where they “came from.”
Her city is known as a former “sundown town,” a term for the thousands of communities that excluded certain racial and ethnic groups, often Chinese or Black people, after the post-Civil War Reconstruction era of racial progress.
The “sundown” part comes from signs at many towns’ limits often warning the targeted racial group they had to leave by sundown.
“Black people were not allowed to be within the city limits after hours. And brown people were basically treated as second-class citizens,” Bob Adame, Lynn’s 73-year-old father, recalled. “A fact of life that everybody knew.”
With many oral narratives like his, local historian Olivia Lowe pieced together Loveland’s history as a sundown town for the Loveland Reporter-Herald in 2016. Still, some doubt it actually happened.
Former Loveland city councilor and Vietnam war veteran Gary Hausman vaguely remembers biking across a city bridge over the Big Thompson River some 60 years ago. Nearby, an unofficial-looking sign told Black people they were unwelcome after sundown.
“I can't remember growing up ever seeing Black people in the city limits of Loveland,” Hausman, who is white, told the Mountain West News Bureau. “So I'm sure it had an effect on them.”
Hausman’s friend since high school, Dennis Dinsmore, vividly recalled a similar message attached to another sign at the city’s border. He stole it while college-bound in 1967, about four years after Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream..." speech.
“We observe Jim Crow laws here,” the sign read.
Dinsmore remembered a Black friend visiting his dorm, looking at the sign and asking if he knew what it meant. Dinsmore said he didn’t; he only stole it as a meaningless prank. After learning the sign referred to post-Civil War segregationist laws, Dinsmore threw it out.
Oral history and old U.S. census numbers are often the primary evidence of sundown towns, according to James Loewen. The historian and sociologist, who died in August, spent years uncovering the nation’s sundown towns and wrote the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.”
The city likely never had any official ordinances, according to local historian Lowe.
But in the hundreds of sundown towns Loewen confirmed over his long career, ordinances were seldom needed to ensure a racial group’s exclusion. For example, Dinsmore’s older sister and her husband moved back to Loveland from Arkansas with a Black nanny in the mid-1900s.
“They were visited by some gentlemen in a car that said that it would be a very good idea if they sent her back home, if they didn't want trouble,” Dinsmore said.
The nanny was gone soon after. Lowe and other residents report similar incidents throughout the 1900s: a visiting basketball team forced to sleep elsewhere, homeowners association rules prohibiting Black residents, general housing discrimination and a strong Klu Klux Klan presence.
'Second-generation sundown town problems'
“It's even crazy to call it history because it's like current events, it’s happening right now,” said Julius Philpot, a Black Loveland resident.
The 32-year-old junior league basketball coach moved to Loveland four years ago for more affordable veteran housing.
“For me, the experience has been no different than any other areas where it's predominantly (white),” he said, describing racist or prejudiced incidents, like being asked if he’s part of a gang and being called slurs. “The people that want to clutch their purses, they kind of just eyeball you in a sense, and you wouldn't really understand it until you've been in a situation.”
He’s far from the only resident of color to say they have experienced such racism.
During the summer of 2020, several incidents put Loveland’s racial issues in the spotlight. A few examples:
June 2020: One of the city’s first “Black Lives Matter” protests. Co-organizer Alaysha Marshall, a Black and Arab resident, tells KUNC that angry backlash to the peaceful, undisruptive protest was hard to stomach, but the support outweighed it.
July 2020: Barry Wesley, a Black university student working in door-to-door roofing sales, is held at gunpoint by a white resident, Scott Gudmundsen. The former Utah policeman said he thought Wesley and his white coworker were “Antifa,” according to the police report. Wesley begged to live, witnesses said. Gudmundsen responded that he wouldn’t kill him, but “police would.”
Two days earlier, Gudmundson told others of his concerns about “Antifa,” citing a Black man he saw drive by and make a peace sign, the report said. He wasn’t charged with a hate crime and is on parole, partly since the attack was attributed to mental health issues.
August 2020: City council holds combative debates about racism and diversity, including an argument over what "Black Lives Matter" means. In a separate meeting, the council’s mostly-conservative majority declines to pass a 275-word, non-binding resolution that aimed to officially acknowledge systemic racism and diversity’s value.
September 2020: The local school board votes to remove Loveland high school’s “Indian” mascot, partially because Native American residents found it racist, according to the Reporter-Herald. The decision drew heavy pushback from white residents, including former mayor Ray Reeb.
A “Loveland Against Racism” rally in August 2020 was interrupted by a crowd of counter-demonstrators. According to the Loveland Reporter-Herald, some of the counter-demonstrators, armed and wearing body armor, said they were with the Three Percenters, a far-right, anti-government movement.
“People showed their true colors during these protests,” Philpot said. “They've been literally sitting here in the woodworks, they're still here, they're comfortable.”
Philpot attended the demonstration and spoke with some of the counter-demonstrators. He said some were willing to calmly engage him, others not so much.
“There's people that are skipping those steps of actually having a conversation with somebody,” Philpot said. “The same conversation that they want somebody to have with them when they're like, ‘well, not all of us are racists.’”
Division vs. diversity
A word repeatedly comes up in people's reasoning for opposing equity measures: “division.”
“I think we have a portion of council and the community that believes that racism is a thing of the past, that it no longer exists, that anybody has equal opportunity,” Loveland Mayor Jackie Marsh told the Mountain West News Bureau.
Her comment echoes the Gemini Group, LLC, a Colorado Black-run equity consultant group, which interviewed councilors, held listening sessions and presented findings along those lines this past March.
“And then you have another portion of us that believe that there is white privilege and racism does exist,” said Marsh, who is up for reelection in November. “And just because you are Caucasian and don't experience it, doesn't mean that it isn't there.”
“I agree that (minorities) should have a voice, but I think there's other people out there who should have a voice, too,” argued majority councilor Steve Olson at a Loveland City Council meeting in August. “Why shouldn't I have a voice?”
Olson opposed a “diversity commission” made up of non-white and LGBTQ residents. His position echoed many of the public comments from a mostly white, mostly anti-equity group of residents crowding the council chambers that evening. The city has about 25 boards and commissions including disability and senior citizens commissions and a golf board.
“I guess I'm concerned about having a group just that is addressing them and it's their group and then becomes more ‘we feel we have some privileges’ and that does turn to rights and so forth,” Olson added, arguing any board the city creates shouldn’t use the word “diversity” in its name because that would be too divisive. “I just think something that is more inclusive of the community instead of a special interest group would be a better title for that.”
It’s common for residents and some councilors in Loveland, Colorado’s whitest large community, to argue that conversations about racism during the all-white council’s meetings focus too exclusively on minorities or people of color.
Mayor pro tem and mayoral candidate Don Overcash agreed any commission should not have “diversity” in its name.
“I'm concerned that there's certain words that in our nation have become very politicized and polarizing,” Overcash said. “I think we need to be sensitive to that because we are part of the overall culture, so that's why I would like to suggest a different name. You saw the reaction (in public comments).”
But white residents opposed to diversity and equity measures are not the only ones showing up to meetings and writing city councilors. Residents of color, including Lynn Adame and Julius Philpot, have testified before the council about the constant racism they have endured in their city.
Black resident Jaelynn Coates wrote to the council in August 2020: “Everywhere you go in Loveland, there are reminders that not everyone is truly welcome here ... I'd like to feel like I can be proud to live here and feel comfortable establishing my life here long term. But the truth is, I'm really just too unsure that this is a place I want to stay, to raise a family, to grow old.”
Overcash acknowledges a few racist individuals likely live in Loveland. But he doesn’t think there’s a pervasive problem, despite the testimonies before the council and in nonprofit-organized public listening sessions, city surveys and elsewhere.
“I can direct you to people of color that would say ‘I don't see what the problem is,’ they would say they're making an issue,” he said, adding they’ve likely experienced racism, “but they don't see that as a whole society or a whole city doing these things."
Interestingly, a similar battle between “division” and efforts to make racial progress was waged over 100 years ago, during the Civil War. According to sociologist James Loewen’s book “Sundown Towns,” as frustration with the war mounted, a portion of pro-slavery rhetoric centered on the conflict itself blaming African Americans for the national division.
In some northern communities, Loewen wrote, the argument was strong enough for whites to begin forcing Black people out of town.
“Because somebody in 1920 did something, doesn't mean in 2021 I need to pass some bill or do something to try to correct what was done 100 years ago or 80 years ago,” Overcash said when asked whether Loveland’s sundown history should be addressed.
The question, Overcash added, is, “How are we moving forward as a society and a culture that values people to a greater degree?”
Sociologist James Loewen proposes three steps a former sundown town should take to become “reformed:”
- Admit it happened
- Say it was wrong and apologize
- Take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen anymore
Loveland’s city council is in a unique position to take all three steps. But there has been little movement on the issue.
The debates about racism and equity began with a vote to consider creating a diversity commission during a Dec. 17, 2019 meeting. After nearly two years and at least six meetings that prominently featured the issue, almost no action has been taken by city councilors.
On the horizon
With a few exceptions, almost everyone interviewed for this story said talking about the city’s sundown history and racism was important to some degree, regardless of their position on other issues. Public comments in meetings, letters to the editor, online and elsewhere tend to weigh more heavily against this position.
‘We need to get to a point where we're lifting everybody up to our actions and our behaviors instead of just trying to score points or shine a spotlight on a small problem,” Overcash said. “Get a light on it, but find a way to solve the problem and not complain about it.”
He points to the city’s affordable housing efforts as an example, which is something even those who disagree with him on most other points also say is needed to increase the city’s diversity.
Still, many residents the Mountain West News Bureau spoke to argue there is something inherent to that history that cannot be resolved — and risks being repeated — if it is ignored.
A place to call home
In her sleek high-rise apartment building overlooking downtown Loveland and distant lush mountain greenery, Tara Hunter can see herself calling this place home for a long time.
“From what my limited experience is, it's a really great place and I love it,” Hunter said.
At first, the 46-year-old Black woman was shocked Loveland had so few other Black residents. With the city’s size, proximity to larger communities, opportunities for recreation, beautiful parks and community events, she wondered: “Is something keeping them away?”
And then she learned about its sundown history.
“I am, you know, one of the handful of Black people that might come through there,” she said. “But I'm still not feeling like this is a place that I don't belong.”
Since moving to Loveland in January 2021, Hunter’s experience has been free of prejudice and racism, mostly positive even. She has lived in communities with similar histories before, and said there is value in addressing it.
“Not necessarily saying, OK, we're going to set a goal of increasing diversity by this much or anything,” she said. “A goal of just understanding, like, why do we look like we do in Loveland? … And, is it a negative thing that's keeping people away from here?”
“You're not going to know that without discussion,” she said, before hitting the city streets for a run. She came back home later, continuing to work, sleep and live in Loveland, even after sundown.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.