“The past is never dead. It is not even past.”
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, 1951
I have known of Sundown Towns ever since I was a little child.
They existed all across America for over 100 years.
They still exist.
North, South, East, West.
They are called “Sundown Towns”, “Sunset Towns”, “Gray Towns”. The name comes from a hateful racist ultimatum, an ultimatum that stated in sign after sign, after sign, posted outside of all-white towns/suburbs/communities:
“Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.”
“Whites Only Within the City Limits After Dark.”
Many times the message was point blank enforced with vicious brutal clarity:
And many black Americans did die.
In towns across America, many black people were murdered and the survivors were driven from their homes, property stolen. Towns with names like Greenwood, the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Towns like Rosewood, Florida. Towns like Wilmington, North Carolina, where America’s second known coup d’etat occurred. Towns like Forsyth County, Georgia, to name a few.
Sundown Towns still exist all across America in the 21ST Century:
Many U.S. presidents hailed from sundown towns:
-Theodore Roosevelt (Cove Neck, New York)
-William McKinley (Niles, Ohio)
-George W. Bush (Highland Park, Texas)
Besides presidents, famous Americans lived in Sundown Towns:
-Dale Carnegie (Maryville, Missouri)
-Woody Guthrie (Okemah, Oklahoma) [Town, where in 1911, Laura Nelson and her young son were lynched.]
-Joe McCarthy (Appleton, Wisconsin)
-Emily Post (Tuxedo Park, New York)
Numerous inventions were created in Sundown Towns:
-Spam (Austin, Minnesota), Kentucky Fried Chicken (Corbin, Kentucky), Krispy Kreme doughnuts (Effingham, Illinois) and Tootsie Rolls (West Lawn, Chicago). Even “Tarzan” was created in a Sundown Town. Tarzan may have been born in “darkest Africa”, but his origins occurred in one Sundown Town (Oak Park, California, home of Edgar Rice Burroughs), and the proceeds from his very profitable novels and movies underwrote Burroughs’s creation of another sundown town (Tarzana, California).
“Is it true that ‘Anna’ stands for ‘Ain’t No Niggers Allowed’?” I asked at the convenience store in Anna, Illinois, where I stopped to buy coffee.
“Yes,” the store clerk replied. “That’s sad, isn’t it?” she added, distancing herself from the policy. And she went on to assure me, “That all happened a long time ago.”
“I understand racial exclusion is still going on?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
-conversation with clerk, Anna, Illinois, October 2001 (1)
During slavery, Sundown Towns were in the minority. With the abolition of slavery and with formerly enslaved blacks of the Great Migration moving North, the Mid-West and the West to escape the cruelties of Jim Crow segregation of the South, whites in those areas began to envision ways to keep their towns and communities all-white. A sundown town is any organized jurisdiction that has for decades forced out and kept black Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus “all-white” on purpose. Lynchings became prominent after 1890, when the legal institution of segregation began to harden, especially with the previous compromise of the safety of former ex-slaves just two decades before, under the adminstration of President Rutherford B. Hayes and the handing of former ex-slaves back into the hands of their racist white tormentors. Under Jim/Jane Crow segregation, black people could not vote, could not use public parks their tax dollars paid for; could not frequent restaurants. As lynchings rose, so too did the desire of many whites to drive black citizens from their midsts——-forever.
Race relations grew hatefully horrific between 1890 and the 1940s. As Edwin Yoder, Jr. wrote in 2003 in the Washington Post:
“Notwithstanding the brilliant revisionist works of the late C. Vann Woodward, few Americans even remotely grasp the earthquake of 1890-1901 that overthrew biracial voting in the South.” (2)
The racial attacks against black citizens was not limited to the South—-but was national. This same earthquake struck the North with a vengeance. Many historians have ignored this hidden dimension of America’s racist past and in so doing, have never tried to compile, document and present historical eveidence of the creation of sundown towns, their legacy and how and why sundowns came into being, as well as researching the existence of the many sundown towns that still exist all across present-day America. Because of this historical amnesia of many historians, they have not brought to light one of the most brutal forms of ethnic cleansing that America has allowed to occur: sundown towns. (1)
Sundown town are not only widespread, but are relatively recent. Most towns did not go sundown until after slavery, before the Civil War, or even during Reconstruction. Black people moved everywhere in America between 1865 and 1890—Montana, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to name just a few places. Black people lived in many communities across America. (1)
But, between 1890 and the 1940s, that all changed. Across America, cities, counties and neighborhoods grew more and more segregated as whites feared the economic and social advances of the former ex-slaves. All across America, from California to Minnesota to Long Island to Florida—white Americans created ethnic cleansing against black citizens, expelling entire black communities or intimidating and keeping out potential would-be neighbors.
SUNDOWN TOWNS OF AMERICA’S RACIST HISTORY
The past is always with us, and nowhere is that more noted than in the many well-known sundown towns of America’s racist pogroms against her black citizens.
Here is a link to two posts I wrote on America’s ethnic cleansing of her black citizens in Greenwood, Rosewood, and Wilmington—the most well-known of racial violence on a massive scale:
Suffice it to say, America’s history speaks for itself.
Many Americans love to convince themselves that not only have sundown towns never existed in large numbers, but, also that sundown towns no longer exist.
But, they do.
Sundown towns are not aberrant, random acts. They are well-thought out, methodically planned communities of agreed upon policies that permanently drove out black citizens. The existence of sundown towns has been sanctioned from the federal government, to the state government, to the county government, to the municpal government—right down to the denizens who live in all-white communities. Housing discrimination, zoning ordinances, economic discrimination all work hand-in-hand to continue and enforce sundown town mentality all across this nation. The sundowning of America has not ended. It is a constant and evolving monster that will never go away. Millions of Americans, knowingly, and unknowingly, have grown up in sundown towns—including many of America’s leaders, and today in the 21ST Century this process of pushing Black Americans into pariah status is so normal as to be considered sane and rational. There is no more need for signs that blatantly state “Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in this town”. The hatred of Black Americans is burned into the psyches of all those who are not black, allowing for a complacent and vicious maltreatment of Black U.S. citizens on all levels. There is no need to utter the word nigger, post signs, or blow a whistle as the Sun sets, when the borg mentality of a sundown community shows in word and deed the hatred and contempt it has for its fellow Black American citizens. When that hatred is condoned, accepted, and not challenged. Some say that only a few bad apples live in sundown communities, but, if there were “good people” who lived in these communities, they would rise up and challenge the wrongs perpetuated by sundown socities—-therefore, these “good people” do not exist. Their silence is acceptance of the cruelty and venom of sundown communities.
What are the things we can do to investigate and raise the issue of sundown towns? The following are some actions we can take in pulling back the covers of racial amnesia on the history of sundown towns and their still lingering effect on America:
-Start with the latest United States Census (gather information on demographics and the population shift change of blacks) and how a town that had a black population changed to white over a period of time;
-Go to your local library: neighborhood, city and county. Invest time in also using university libraries which can have information not readily found at city and county libraries. Many libraries have archives of newspapers which would give accounts of economic, political, social changes which would indirectly point towards the banishment of entire black citizens, as well as whites who took over the property by adverse possession;
-Use city hall’s records. Check for any evidence of racial redlining as well as government (federal and state) of racial restrictive covenants;
-Talk to the elderly—those in your family, community as well as nursing homes. You will find with patience, tact and diplomacy, you can obtain information from senior citizens who can remember past lived events as if they happened yesterday. Some will talk; many will not want to, as this is a painful part of America’s history that is yet to be reconciled;
-Look at the composition of neighborhood environs, especially in living domiciles. Are there homes located only in the town, with more newer homes being built, as opposed to no apartments going up for tenants to rent? Lack of apartment housing tells a huge story about a sundown town, especially if the residents fought against a real estate developer seeking to build apartments in that town. Some apartments can be so high-priced that they are out of the price range of an up-and-coming working-class person who desires to find work and a home in that town.
Do the streets have a covoluted, twisting and turning design to them? Supposedly this is to confuse people who may take a wrong turn and end up in the neighborhood. In its own twisted logic, this is supposed to prevent crime under the assumption that a non-resident is more likely to not commit crime in an area they are not familiar with;
-Document cases of racial profiling and police harassment. Constant surveillance, stop-and-frisk violations of the Fourth Amendment and being followed by police when driving through gated and sundown communities still lends credence towards the reality of Driving While Black;
-Do a “test case” on a certain real estate company or apartment/townhome. Send in a black couple to see how they are treated, then send in a white couple to see how they are treated. Compile evidence of any “steering” done by the real estate agents. Agents who commit such acts are in defiance of federal laws and risk a revocation of their licence;
-Check out the racial makeup of businesses, factories, and other places of employment. Does the racial makeup indicate overwhelming white and non-black employees? There may be hostility towards hiring qualified blacks as well as fostering a work environment that is hellish for blacks;
-Act on what you have gathered. Take it upon yourself to track down the history of a specific town. Check the population demographics of the present-day, check the employment situation, i.e.: Is there more unemployment for a specific group, such as higher unemployment for black women as opposed to other groups? Are there more people of other non-white races living there than black citizens? Document, write it down and get the information out.
Examine the backgrounds of a suspected sundown town.
Question why this town has no black residents.
Acknowledge the fact that the savagery of sundown towns existed, for by not bringing the evidence of their history out into the open, we insult all the hundreds of thousands of non-whites who have been destroyed from this most inhumane racist social phenomenom. America must acknowledge that these towns happened. Yes, America the so-called moral land of the free, did such atrocities to her most defenseless citizens. Knowledge of sundown towns must be learned, not run from, not swept under the rug anymore. Question the all-white communities you come across in your travels through America. Ask yourself, “Why? Why are there no black citizens living here? Why would those black citizens not want to live here surrounded with excellent schools, clean neighborhoods, good paying jobs?” Cease taking for granted that millions of black citizens are happy in their place in the “white” social order. Check census records that show a town with a history of being overwhelmingly white for 50-, 70-, 100- years.
When you come across evidence of actual sundown towns, tell the truth about America’s racist history of ethnic cleansing. No longer let the truth languish under the lies of deceit that has reigned in America’s racist mockery of the principles upon which this country was founded.
Know and understand that the status quo will fight you tooth-and-nail for trying to bring the truth to light. This country’s institutionalized powers do not want its citizens to learn of this country’ true racist past, structual powers that cover all facets of American life—real estate companies, lending companies/banks, to name just a few. The existence and knowledge of the truth about sundown towns implicates the powers that control this country. The role played by the government in allowing lawless race hatred to destroy countless black lives can hardly be dismissed with more denial and ignorance anymore. From the gray towns that passed ordinances barring blacks, to the sheriffs who bodily “escorted” black citizens out of their own homes, business, communities, to the states that passed laws enabling cities to zone out “undesirables” as well as create interzones where prostitution, drugs and other crimes of vice were steered towards black neighborhoods and away from white neighborhoods, all the way up to the federal government—whose lending and insuring policies in FHA loans from the 1930s to the 1960s required sundown neighborhoods and suburbs—this country openly, unashamedly and aggressively favored white supremacy and worked hand-in-hand to help create the many sundown towns, many of which still exist today in present-day 21ST Century America. (1)
If you desire to learn if you live(d) in a sundown town you may do the following. Check your town’s Chamber of Commerce, local historical/genealogical societies. Search public library records of old newspapers and periodicals. Seek out elderly residents of the town; they may know of the history of that town, especially if they lived there all their lives. We have to learn to deal with this monstrous part of America’s history, for how can we ever learn to deal with sundown towns and their legacy if we are not willing to face up to the fact of their exsitence then and their existence now?
Sundown towns are not just in all-white cities.
They exist alive and well in the many gated communities all across America, communities that exist and survive along racial and economic class lines.
Many Americans ask themselves why is that black citizens remain the outsiders in this supposed moral society that rewards hard work. Many people wonder why black citizens have made so little progress in the following 143 years after the abolition of slavery. What they do not know is that there was a time when black Americans lived in better more racially diverse conditions during the 1870s and the earlier 1880s, when Reconstruction was struggling to avoid the vise-like death grip that burgeoning white supremacy had caught it in during the adminstrations of Andrew Johnson and Rutherford Hayes. Many Americans do not realize that de jure residential segregation grew progressivly worse until around 1968, and that it did not start to somewhat decrease until the 1970s, 1980s, well after the Civil Rights Movement had ended.
This was decades of contempt towards the humanity of black citizens.
In many areas of America, black citizens have made some gains due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the continued enforcement of the 14TH Amendment.
But, in the realm of housing, in the realm of neighborhoods and communities across America, in the name of whom shall be allowed to live next door to you (and whom shall not be allowed)—-race still matters.
Segregated communities allow discrimination to exclude black citizens from American life. Segregation exacerbates exclusion and isolation, making it easier to discriminate against black citizens in schooling, housing, employment and even city services—services that black citizen’s tax dollars help pay for. The very same inadequacies that so many white Americans blame black people for are the results of decades of, rather than excuses for, residential segregation and its legacy.
All-white communities make it easier for whites to think racist perceptions of black citizens:
Black Americans faced cruel mistreatment in traveling throughout parts of America, so much so, that a book was compiled to help Black citizens navigate the hellish nightmare that awaited them when driving through sundown towns, and across America while traveling the country of their birth. The title of this book was “The Negro Motorist Green Book”. It provided information on stops at gasoline stations, hotels, restaurants, national parks, etc., for the traveling black motorist, before the passage of the Public Accommodation Laws (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964):
The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1949
The Negro traveler’s inconveniences,” writes Wendell P. Alston in The Negro Motorist Green Book for 1949, “are many and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups. . . .
The GREEN BOOK with its list of hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops and various other services can most certainly help solve your travel problems. It was the idea of Victor H. Green, the publisher, in introducing the Green Book, to save the travelers of his race as many difficulties and embarrassments as possible.”
It is an effrontery that sundown towns still exists in a country that prides itself on decent values of justice, fairness and equality. In addition to maintaining the racist white status quo, racial segregation of sundown towns allow whites to think of non-whites as less than human—sub-human. White adults especially those living in sundown towns accept opposing policies that might decrease the sharp differences that exist between the chances for black citizens to improve and upgrade their abysmal station in life, differences that allow whites to excel at the expense of blacks.
Where and how we live says a lot about us, and eliminating all-white sundown towns, neighborhoods and gated communities will lessen racial prejudice and stereotypes.
Sociologists have long known that when people live together in the same environment, when people not only work on a job, but, then go home to live in the same community, go to the same schools, go to the same homes—-go to worship in the same houses of faith—that it becomes nearly impossible to continue to see blacks and non-whites as the continual “Other”. Racial integration can and does work—when it is given a chance, and when those who live in sundown communities work to build communities of inclusion, as opposed to communities of exclusion, people cease to become “things” and start to become humans in the eyes of opposing different groups.
As sociologist Robert Park wrote decades ago:
“Most if not all cultural changes in society will be correlated with changes in territorial organization, and every change in the territorial and occupational distribution of the population will affect changes in existing culture.” (1)
If America wants a stronger, more diverse non-racist country, America must start with the dismantling of her sundown towns and communities.
But, in the end, it will be left up to whites.
They are the ones who created sundown towns. They are the ones who created the concept of “whiteness”, racial constructs and the infamous “Other”.
They will have to lead a true fight against the continuance of sundown towns.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO CHALLENGE AND CHANGE SUNDOWN TOWNS
The author James Loewen of the book, “Sundown Towns” made an excellent suggestion on how to bring about the end of sundown towns and how to make America a truly inclusionary nation.
RESIDENT’S RIGHTS ACT
The diversity ban that created sundown towns was sanctioned by more than a century of laws, covenants, government policies, courts and racial violence by good citizens.
“Many towns and suburbs since then have admitted people of color. However, others resist. Just as the government sanctioned sundown towns and suburbs, government now should force them to change”, Loewen said.
He advocates a “Residents Rights Act” “that makes it in an entire town’s interest to welcome black Americans.” “Government improvement funds should be withheld until communities welcome blacks, an act that “parallels “the registration clause of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (extended and strengthened in 1982). This law provides that in counties with an unusual disparity between the per centage of the black and white electorates registered to vote, the department of Justice can send in federal examiners, once complaints have been received from 10 individuals who were rebuffed when trying to register. Similarly…the Resident’s Rights Act will trigger sanctions—when coupled with at least 2 valid complaints from families who were rebuffed when trying to buy or rent a home in the community and a careful showing that it was a sundown town.”
Loewen said people in communities that refuse also should lose their ability to deduct mortgage interest from taxes. It would make property in such areas less valuable. “The Residents’ Rights Act requires not integration but an end to exclusion,” Loewen said. Congress or a state “could pass a Resident’s Right Act. If Congress acted, the required complaints would go to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would have the power to hear complaints of recent discrimination and collect evidence on whether the town has a sundown past. The first consequence for towns that trigger the Resident’s Rights Act will be federal housing examiners, parallel to elections examiners, investigating complaints, provide community relations services to the town, and meet with town officials, real estate agents, schools, and representatives of churches and other organizations to try to create an atmosphere more hospitable to black citizens or others claiming to have been excluded.” (1)
Take the Clean Air Act. It sanctions and levies fines, against cities/states which do not adhere to this environmental law. Under its provisions, if a city’s air quality falls below a certain minimum, no more federal/state tax dollars can be spent on highways and development until it cleans up its air. The same can be done under the Resident’s Rights Act, in this case, the dismantling of the continued existence of sundown towns. (1)
Similarly the Resident’s Rights Act will operate along similar lines in the withholding of federal tax dollars from towns that knowingly have a sundown town history and that continue to discriminate in present-day America. No more tax dollars “can be spent on discretionary programs in a sundown town or suburb until it cleans up its *act* in segregation. Tax money for innocent people (disaster relief) will still flow. Ongoing expenditures will not be affected. But the town will be shut from seeking funds for sewage facilities, police training, and 1,001 other programs. Afterall, every dollar of federal and state tax money spent in a sundown town community is a dollar spent *ONLY* on white Americans, yet collected from *ALL AMERICANS*.” [Caps my emphasis.] (1)
Of course this may not work in affluent towns/communities. Making sundown towns that are rich ineligible for federal or state funds may not suffice. As Loewen stated, “some school districts and institutions of higher education simply turned their backs on funds for education, loans for dormitories, and the like, choosing to stay segregated.” (1)
Here a simpler solution can come into play as Loewen states, involving the use of the income tax code:
“denial of the federal home mortgage interest deduction. This deduction has long been one of the important ways our tax code favors middle-and higher-income Americans, allowing homeowners to deduct the largest single component of their housing outlay, while renters get no such break. The rationale for this deduction is our national interest in encouraging home ownership.
“Surely America has no national interest in encouraging home ownership in sundown towns, however. So it should grant no exemption for mortgage interest payments by homeowners who choose to live in such communities.”
America should not have black or white neighborhoods. As Loewen stated, it “should have neighborhoods.” (1)
We have not achieved full democracy and equality in America.
It is way past time to stop telling ourselves the lies that all have made it. We have to accept that structural/institutional government approval of continued racism will no longer be tolerated in a country that prides itself on being the champion of the basic rights of all citizens who reside in its confines.
It is in America’s national interest to desegregate as the Warren Court stated with “full and deliberate speed”. (1)
The history of sundown towns has been hidden for too long. Time for the history of sundown towns to come out of the shadowy realms of ignorance and denial, and for their reality to come into the light of acknowledgement, atonement and obliteration.
Time to finally end the long reign of terror that is discrimination, a time that is way long past overdue.
1. “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Segregation in America”, by James Loewen, The New Press, 2005, pg. 4.
2. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975 ; Edwin Yoder, Jr., “The People, Yes,” Washington Post Book World, 6/15/2003, pg.6.
Ray Stanard Baker, Following the Color Line (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1964 
Malcolm Brown and John Webb (WPA), Seven Stranded Coal Towns (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1941)
Rayford W. Logan, The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, reprinted as The Betrayal of the Negro (NY: MacMillan Collier, 1965 ).
James Loewen’s website:
SUNDOWN TOWN VIDEO:
RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1067.html
THE NEGRO TRAVELER’S GREENBOOK (1956) 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION This edition addresses air transportation travel for black Americans, and even speaks of travel to the moon, where it would not surprise me if Jane Crow segregation makes its way into outer space and interplanetary travel in the future.
NOTE TO READERS:
At the time I wrote my essay, I did not mention that some of the sundown towns I spoke of may have rescinded their sundown ordinances/polices in the last 8 years. Therefore, a sundown town that may have been one at the time of the 2000 U.S. Census, may have allowed black Americans in since then. Since the next U. S. Census is not until 2010, I used the demographics from those towns which at the time may have not had a black population at the time.
Some towns may have a per centage of black residents living there, with the per centage anywhere between >1.00% or upwards of <5.00% of the total population.
If a sundown town now has black residents living there in at least >10.0%, then I no longer consider that town a “sundown town”. Keep in mind that 1.00% black residents of a sundown town is still too low for the general population ratio of black Americans (at the time of the 2000 U. S. Census, black people were approximately 13% of the U. S. population). Even though the numbers of black residents living in former sundown towns are still low, still, that is a start.
But, those are just numbers.
How the quality of life (friendliness/acceptance of neighbors; work environment; personal relationships between the black families and their white neighbors; personal relationships/dating/friendships for the black children/teenagers) is for the black residents is something only they can answer to. Those factors tell whether life for black residents of former-sundown towns is a quality of life for them.
Also to be taken into consideration, what are the numerical ratios of black residents in comparison to non-black residents? Since America has a racist hierarchy of favoritism of non-black groups (Latinos, Asians, Arabs, etc.) over her black citizens, one must question why a particular former-sundown town has more non-black residents than black residents? One must question why white-dominated America is still more accepting of ethnic whites, and other non-blacks? One must question why America still continues to harbor disparagement and the bestowing of a pariah status on her black citizens? One must question why are Latinos, Asians and other non-black groups are given more favored status in a former-sundown town in opposition to a denigrated status that is constantly given to black citizens all across America?
Are black residents given less acceptance than those of non-black racial/ethnic groups in these former-sundown towns? Are black residents still the outsiders…still the anti-neighbors….still the anti-citizens…in all of America’s eyes?
Some sundown towns in 2008 can be taken off my list.
Sadly, there are still many more out there which cannot.