The idea seemed like a no-brainer to Philip Zwerling. In 1973, he was a young, Unitarian minister who was fairly new to the small Middlesex County town of Ashby, a community of just over 2,200 people a little south of the New Hampshire border.
The idea was conceived following a Martin Luther King Day speech about racial injustice given by John Howard, a local NAACP leader, that year. Zwerling had invited Howard to his church to speak, and afterwards gathered with some parishioners in the basement.
"What could we do, that might have some lasting effect, that might engage the community to do something positive around these issues?" Zwerling said they asked each other.
They resolved to put forth a resolution at the upcoming annual town meeting to adopt an official statement of racial inclusivity.
"The town of Ashby, Massachusetts, welcomes Black people and people of color to our town because we believe in a diverse and harmonious town," Zwerling remembered, paraphrasing the 1973 resolution. "And that’s really all it said."
But the progressive, New-York born Zwerling was already a controversial figure in town. He was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. And he'd come to be seen by some in Ashby as an outsider, a passer-through, uninterested in the town’s mores, needlessly stirring the pot. And what he thought was an “innocuous” resolution proved to be anything but.
"I have to admit to a certain level of stupidity about it, you know. I just didn’t think it was a big deal," he said. "All this, what must have been under the surface, bubbled up, and it got pretty contentious pretty quickly."
According to The Lowell Sun, the resolution initially included the language "We welcome to our town, as neighbors, people of color and members of other minority groups," but was later amended to say more simply that residents would “plan and work for a multi-racial community.”
Some locals at the time told the press that the resolution was “loaded.” One long-time resident told The Lowell Sun in 2018 that the vote became as much a referendum on Zwerling himself as it was about the substance of the statement. Zwerling admitted that much was true. He would leave town the following year. But he also said that his reputation wasn't the only factor.
"We would call them good people," he said of the Ashby residents. "They were hardworking people. They were family people. But they were fearful people."
Whatever the complexities, they were not captured in the brief news item that ran following the vote in, among other publications, The New York Times. It said simply, “Yesterday's annual town meeting voted 148 to 79 against inviting members of minority groups into town.”
Years later, that news item would catch the eye of sociologist James W. Loewen, author of the best-seller "Lies My Teacher Told Me," when he began researching the phenomenon of American "sundown towns."
"A sundown town is a town that for decades was, and a few still are, all-white on purpose," Loewen said in an interview.
The term “sundown town” derives from the most overt cases, where signs were posted warning Black people not to be in town when the sun went down. More often, Loewen said, “official or semi-official policies — ranging from zoning ordinances to outright hostility or intimidation — drove non-whites out of these communities, or made it clear they were not welcome.”
Loewen said that just becasue a town was all-white for decades, doesn't mean it was a sundown town. And some sundown towns had small Black populations, often domestic workers or local barbers. They were largely a Northern phenomenon. And Loewen said thousands of towns “went sundown” between 1890 and 1940, a period during which the country’s Black population increased dramatically — yet entire swaths of the North, including in New England, became whiter.
"Between 1890 and 1940, race relations steadily deteriorated," Loewen said. "The United States went more racist as 1890 moved to 1900, moved to 1920, and so on."
Loewen's book, "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism," was first published in 2006, but he continues to investigate and identify former sundown towns today with the help of volunteers. Ashby is just one of dozens of Massachusetts municipalities, from Saugus to Sudbury to South Hadley, that he’s identified as having once possibly been sundown towns. A section on his website walks people through how they can do the research to confirm whether or not their town was.
"I’ve had students as young as middle school and people as old as 86 who have confirmed sundown towns," he said.
For Loewen, this isn’t just academic exercise. He said that the legacy of having "gone sundown" has a way of lingering — even long after policies or populations have changed. As one stark example, he pointed to Fergusun, Missouri — a former sundown town — that by the 20th century, had a majority Black population.
"So it was hardly a sundown town, but they still had a sundown town-type police force," he said. "Still doing DWB [Driving While Black] stuff, still overwhelmingly white, just like it was when it was a sundown town."
"Why are people of color centered in the city? It’s because they were pushed out of the rural towns," said Jean Moule, an Oregon State University professor who has taught about sundown towns.
Moule says she just recently found herself driving around her own nearly all-white county, reflecting on its sundown legacy.
"Here I am, a highly-educated, Black American, and to be honest it almost brought me to tears to think about how different my life would be if African Americans had not been pushed out," she said. "I would have Black neighbors near me instead of being isolated."
Moule says that while we cannot change the past, we can take responsibility for the future.
"You can’t re-role history and start over without recognizing how the racist nature in so many parts of our country has caused this to happen," she said.
That’s why Loewen prescribes three concrete steps that he said any town that was once a sundown town should undertake.
"They need to admit it: We did this. They need to apologize: We did this and it was wrong. And they need to say that we don’t do it anymore. And that third step needs to have some teeth," he explained.
That kind of thoughtful reckoning with what happened in 1973 is something resident Tiffany Call said she would welcome in Ashby.
"I think people like to think of Ashby as an idyllic New England farm town. And this is something that isn’t so ideal," she said.
Call served three years as town clerk in Ashby and now is the director of the public library. She was born in nearby Townsend but says when she moved to Ashby 11 years back, she “fell in love.”
"There are a lot of fantastic people here in Ashby," she said. "Wonderful, kind people that will drop anything if you give ‘em a call and say you need help."
Call is also a member of that same Unitarian church Phillip Zwerling once led. Their congregation is small, but they’ve picked up where he left off, pushing in their own way for a more inclusive community.
"We have a Black Lives Matter banner hanging on our church. We also have a rainbow flag. And both of those have drawn attention — not always positive," she said.
Most of the people who live in Ashby today weren't even born when the vote took place. In fact, only about 10% would have been 18 or older in 1973. If that same vote were held today?
"We don’t have a lot of families of color that live in town, and I think a lot of people are okay with that," Call said. "So, I’m just not sure that the vote would be all that different. I’d like to think that it would be. I’d like to think that we’ve changed and moved forward. But I’m not sure."
That comes as no surprise to Phillip Zwerling. From his perspective, we have as much work to do today as we did in 1973. Not just in Ashby, not just in Massachusetts, but all across America.
"This is a country that’s been trying to deal with race for a very, very long time," Zwerling said. "And usually, white people have been making the wrong choices. And that brings us to where we are today."
This article has been updated.