This article has been updated with the response of local historians on the subject.
Area activists are calling on City of Vermilion officials to end or alter the evening sirens in Vermilion, stating that the daily whistle has a racist past.
“I'm on a quest to get the evening whistle removed from town,” stated Brent Gueth. “I don't want to get into protests or such unless it is necessary. I know many in town believe that the whistle is innocent. However, many people do look at it as a racist symbol. It is time for it to be removed.”
Activists believe the whistle, and the timing of the nightly siren, may date back to Vermilion being a sundown town. Sundown towns, also referred to as sunset towns, are all-white communities that practiced segregation by excluding non-whites through discriminatory laws, intimidation, and/or violence. The term originates from signs posted at town entrances stating "colored people" must leave town by sundown. Some sundown towns sounded a whistle or siren around sunset, to enforce curfews or alert minorities that it was time for them to leave.
It can be difficult to determine what towns were sundown towns. While sundown towns existed throughout the country for decades, almost no literature exists on the topic. Local historians often omit the topic, feeling that it would reflect badly on the community.
“Some people say the whistle never meant anything and no such sign existed,” said Gueth. “I don’t believe that, however perception is reality. I can guarantee most people under 50 that went through the Vermilion school system were told the whistle meant that minorities were to leave town at sundown. Amherst also had a whistle that went off at 6 pm with the same reputation. They removed theirs in the sixties.”
At the end of the Reconstruction Era, towns and counties across the United States imposed Jim Crow laws and additional racist practices. The exclusion of African Americans could be official town policy, or carried out through real estate covenants dictating who could buy or rent property. Sundown towns often excluded other people as well, such as Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans and Jewish people. In some towns the policy was enforced with intimidation, harassment and violence.
Though believed to be a thing of the past, many towns effectively continue to exclude minorities in their community. Sundown towns may no longer practice outright prohibition, but have rarely taken formal action to rectify past policies. In Ohio in 2017, a federal judge ruled on deed restrictions and covenants stating that, as ugly as the wording of these deed restrictions and covenants were, county recorders did not have the authority to alter or remove the offensive passages.
While there is no documented history of Vermilion being a sundown town, Gueth has asked Vermilion’s mayor for the siren in Vermilion to be removed or that the daily whistle time be changed to noon.
“I am aware that one of the excuses for it is that it needs to be tested regularly,” he said. “If this is truly the case, noon would be the appropriate time for that.”
Mayor Jim Forthofer assured activists that he would look into the request.
“The sunset town theory was brought up to me several times around the recent protest,” stated the mayor. “Sunday, at the march, several young protestors told me they learned about sunset town in school here in Vermilion. I had never heard of it except once during my campaign. Nor had I heard that Vermilion’s fire siren was ever connected with a call for people of color to leave Vermilion.”
At the Vermilion City Council meeting on Monday, June 8, 2020 the mayor asked Vermilion Fire Department Chief Stempowski to review the necessity of the 6 pm sirens, and to consider alternatives. No decision has yet been made. Chief Stempowski is reviewing the process with his staff regarding the “required process of ‘toning out’ our first responders”.
“This is the time to put that part of the Vermilion legend to bed, whether innocent or not,” stated Gueth. “It’s a time for Vermilion to admit that the whistle is hurtful for some, even if it isn’t meant to be. It’s time to show the surrounding communities that Vermilion has moved on.”
Rich Tarrant, local historian, stated Vermilion’s siren does not have a racist history.
“The siren thing is beyond the pale,” said Tarrant. “What happened in Minneapolis was, of course, a literal crime. Little Vermilion Ohio likely has its share of racist citizens just as do other communities large and small. But sounding whistles and sirens - yesterday, today and tomorrow in our town have never had anything to do with discrimination. The siren claim is simple hysteria on the part of some who seem to wish that the town at-large is racist. It is not - nor has it ever been. It is just a little town on a Great Lake. People of all races are welcome to live, work and recreate here - and do.”
Kenneth Baughman, President of The Friends of Harbour Town 1837, stated that in 2006 he had a lengthy conversation with then Fire Chief, Eugene Kropf, who joined the Vermilion Fire Department in 1962 and became Chief in 1976.
“‘The chief’ also had the responsibility of maintaining the electronics which regulated the 6 pm siren,” stated Baughman. “The reality is the system was in fact an electronically modified Radio Shack style alarm clock radio typically used in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made of plastic with a fake wooden veneer. It sat on a homemade wooden shelf in the basement of City Hall, next to the air conditioner unit. On one particular morning, while working in the basement of City Hall, Chief Kropf arrived to fix the device because it had failed, and residents noticed it was non operational. After fixing the device we talked at length. He explained how the radio was modified to activate the siren on top of the building. The siren, a relic from the early 1960s, was placed upon what was then the Erie County Bank building, a site that was officially designated as a federal Civil Defense Shelter.”
“In the late and waning days of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Civil Defense Program which brought the siren to Vermilion in the early 1960s was quickly fading away,” said Baughman. “The siren was repurposed to be used as a warning for tornados, like the Lorain Tornado of 1924 that went from Sandusky to Lorain killing over eighty-five people. In an era of limited technology, the siren was also used to call out the Vermilion volunteer fire department. Less officially, it was also repurposed by the mothers of adventurous children as a warning signal that it was dinner time in Vermilion Ohio, and you had best get home by 6:30 pm.”
“Over the years several urban legends have grown around the use and placement of the siren,” stated Baughman. “Some will suggest that Vermilion was what was known as a ‘sundown town’ and that it was the origin of the siren’s placement. This is simply not the case as the siren was placed new when sundown towns were quickly disappearing from the area. The last factually verifiable ‘sundown town’ in the area was a small private beach community several miles west of Vermilion (and well out of siren range), which removed signage from their properties in the very early 1980s.”