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Sundown Towns: 'Hiding' Racism Right in the Open

sundown town
This sign was posted directly opposite the 200-unit Sojourner Truth Housing Project that housed Black defense workers during World War II, in Detroit, Michigan. The building caused riots by white neighbors who wanted to prevent Black tenants from moving in to the area. Library of Congress

At a certain time in American history, if you happened to be of a certain racial heritage — that is to say, not white — it was probably best not to hang around after dark in certain cities and certain places. It was possibly dangerous. Sometimes deadly.

That applied to a lot of places before, roughly, the 1960s. Before racial discrimination was widely condemned, before the Civil Rights era. Before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the Edmund Pettus Bridge incident.

But all-white "sundown towns," as these places were known — so called because Blacks were advised to get out of town before sundown — aren't relegated to ancient history. Some are around today, still, in places all over the United States. They may not be as blatant about their racism as they once were, when signs on the edges of towns literally warned Blacks to stay away. But they're still here; small all-white Midwestern towns and huge all-white suburbs in the North, West and South.

"Our history textbooks give us a picture of the United States [where] we started out great and we have been getting better, kind of automatically, ever since," says sociologist James Loewen, who literally wrote the book on sundown towns — it's called "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism" — back in 2004. "It isn't true. Sometimes, we've gotten worse. And race relations is one of the areas where we got worse."

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The Birth of Sundown Towns

After the Civil War and Reconstruction, when African Americans who had been forced and born into slavery were freed and given rights under the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, life improved for many Blacks. But the progress began to stall in 1890. Things only got worse for at least the next 50 years.

The slide began, Loewen says, with three seemingly disparate events.

  • At the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, as many as 300 Native American men, women and children were slain by U.S. Army forces, a signal to all that Native Americans were not to be full participants in America's future.
  • In December 1890, despite the new amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Mississippi legislature drafted a new state constitution that essentially stripped voting rights from African Americans. Several other states quickly followed.
  • Also in 1890, the U.S. Senate failed to pass an election act that would have restored voting rights by protecting African Americans from being disenfranchised of their votes. That had reverberations throughout the union.

"Even in the North ... it became impossible to claim that we were trying to be an un-racist society," Loewen says. "And so we went in the opposite direction."

More states took voting rights away from African Americans. And many towns and cities, even in the North and West, began to view Blacks as those in the South saw them: as non-citizens. As unworthy of basic human rights. As undesirables in their communities.

sundown town
The Ku Klux Klan used intimidation in many towns to keep Blacks away. This sign was posted along U.S. highway 70, just outside Smithfield, North Carolina, in 1971.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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How Sundown Towns Flourished

Loewen, in his book, defined sundown towns as "any unorganized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus 'all-white' on purpose." All-white didn't necessarily mean 100 percent, but none of these towns had more than a tiny fraction of Blacks or other minorities.

These towns kept out Blacks by different means, some by literally forcing them from their homes and neighborhoods. Some erected signs warning them away. Some passed ordinances, prohibiting Blacks from living there, owning homes there or going to school there. Some used threats of violence — and actual violence — to keep them out. These were the places that Victor Hugo Green warned African American travelers about in, "The Negro Motorist Green Book."

The most egregious example may be Anna, Illinois, a town named after a woman but whose name is more widely suggested as a racist acronym. "In my younger days ... you weren't allowed up here after dark, period," a 61-year-old African American named James Taylor told ProPublica Illinois in 2019. "It was just a racist town."

Anna is far from the only example. At their height, there were thousands and thousands of sundown towns across the U.S. Loewen's original research — based on U.S. census numbers, oral histories and written history — showed that, of the 671 towns in Illinois with more than 1,000 people, 71 percent were all-white, and almost all were all-white on purpose. "There is reason to believe that more than half of all towns in Oregon, Indiana, Ohio, the Cumberlands, the Ozarks and diverse other areas were also all-white on purpose," he wrote. "Sundown suburbs are found from Darien, Connecticut, to La Jolla, California, and are even more prevalent; indeed, most suburbs began life as sundown towns."

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Sundown Towns Today

Loewen keeps a tally of sundown towns and possible sundown towns on his website. It's a long list, covering virtually every state. They proliferate less now from overt means and more through the inertia of the past and more sinister ways; by those suggesting, for example, that Blacks may be more "comfortable" elsewhere; by whispers and cold shoulders; by politicians who stoke fear by claiming that minorities bring with them crime and other problems.

Still, since 2005, when Loewen's book first brought attention to the phenomenon of sundown towns, some of these places have been forced to face up to their racist past, albeit with some resistance.

"What people will say is, 'That was the old days. Why bring it up now?'" Loewen says. "I tell them two things. First, the reputation of the town lives on and makes it stay overtly white, if not all-white, until you do something — until you make it un-stay.

"And two, you are still legitimizing those people in the town who think it was OK the way it was."

In encouraging signs, more than a dozen sundown or former sundown towns have held Black Lives Matter events.

Glendale, California, is one of them. At one time in the early 20th century, the city had a Black population of less than 0.2 percent. In a city that now has more than 200,000 people, Blacks still make up less than 2 percent of the population.

In September 2020, the city passed a resolution acknowledging its racist past, apologizing for it and condemning it, becoming the first city in the state to do so.

"I'm grateful that there are community members who understand this is not just a piece of paper but that it comes with the energy of atonement," Tanita Harris-Ligons, the founder of the organization Black in Glendale, told the city council. "Now, do the work required behind it. Honor the contributions of the diverse community coalition and act on meaningful policies and programs that improve Black representation in Glendale on all fronts."

Other cities have also officially recognized their pasts as sundown towns and vowed to move beyond them. In March 2015, the City Council of Goshen, Indiana, passed a resolution acknowledging its history as a sundown town. The following year, the mayor of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Tim Kabat, formally apologized for his city's history and signed a proclamation to work toward racial equality.

Even Anna, Illinois, held a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020 — most likely the first event of its kind in the town's history. Around 200 people showed up to march through the city streets to protest police brutality against Blacks. A Black woman from the area, Mildred Henderson, who has been marching for racial equality for decades, told the Southern Illinoisan, "I've never seen so many white people give a darn about Black people."

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