Thursday, June 10, 2021

Metuchen, NJ, was a sundown town

All my youth and early adulthood a siren went off at 5pm every day in Metuchen. There were other siren signals (mostly for fires). But every day there was this 5pm siren. 

I remember asking why it was there. I got some vague uncommitted answer from my parents about people knowing when it was 5pm so they could stop working. But that never made any sense to me. In the early 70's everyone owned a watch. 

1. Metuchen was and is segregated
2. Cross-burnings were commonplace enough to be mentioned multiple times in newspaper accounts in the 1920's (see below)
3. Minstrel and blackface shows were common in the town (see below)
4. By the 1930's the Klan had been largely replaced, but not exclusively replaced, by the "Sons & Daughters of Liberty" in Metuchen (see below)
5. Sundown towns abounded all around New Jersey: Clark, Clifton, Green Brook, etc.
6. Sundown towns and sundown sirens went up all across the Midwest and the South.
7. Metuchen was facing a desegregation order in the 1980's because segregation and then redlining had restricted home ownership by non-whites.
8. in the 1940's (presumably) Metuchen began having a "5 o'clock" siren every day. A siren, just the same sort of siren that sundown towns were using all across the United States.

So the question is: was there a racist reason behind the decisions to have a siren go off at 5pm?
Well, did it have a rational purpose that wasn't racist? None that anyone knows of. Bigger cities certainly don't have sirens going off every day.
Do the stories they tell children about how it's a "5 o'clock whistle" make any sense? No, most outdoor workers don't work until 5. So they wouldn't need a 5pm whistle to know when they're supposed to be at home unless it's a "sundown siren" telling "workers" (read "persons of color") to be at home.

Could other purposes be ret-conned into the use of the sirens? Sure. Or could the sundown siren have simply come out of a legitimate military or civilian use? Sure. It did have other signalling uses than the 5pm siren.

But the siren at 5pm every day? The siren that's just like all the "known" sundown sirens all across the country? Well there you gotta ask yourself, was it more likely:

The siren at 5pm an act which only resembled the racist act committed by other racist towns and even though the town of Metuchen had a long history of violence and segregation against people of color -- this one thing was the thing that simply looked racist, operated in a racist manner, and easily had the effect of telling the population who was in charge, but it somehow, no matter all the evidence of systematic racism at all levels of Boro government, was not racist in the least bit and only went off every day at 5 because of some unknown and illogical but totally-not-racist reasons?


The 5pm siren was there to keep people of color in their place? 

Trigger warning: talking about cross burnings and other racist caricatures and violence:

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