Not Wanted Here . . .
. . . Not In My Back Yard
For many people it’s a time of parties and fun.
For others, it’s a time of terror and an omen their lives may be in danger. For thousands of Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, and other minorities in America, sundown meant running for one’s life from communities in which they were not welcome.
People of color (for the 150 years since the start of the bloodiest US battle ever motivated by racism, the American Civil War) have been routinely excluded from certain communities. This exclusion can be subtle or blatant.
Credit: public domain
Hawthorne, California, in the first half of the 20th Century probably said it best on its city limit sign: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Hawthorne”.
Such towns, clearly posting open mistrust and hatred of blacks, were called “Sundown Towns”. It was the kind of place where any black person (almost always black men) caught in town after sundown, might be in danger of lynching.
And should any modern Americans kid themselves that Sundown Towns are a product of Jim Crow institutionalized segregation and racism (and thus, a thing of the past), he or she better think again: Sundown Towns still thrive in America.
Reconstruction in the Deep South after the Civil War was about integration.
By 1890, however, that was over. Poll taxes (which disenfranchised blacks could not afford), literacy tests (which blacks remained largely unable to pass thanks to lack of formal education), and intimidation (by violent white trash vigilantes) kept African-Americans from voting. Reconstruction policies were consistently undermined and rescinded by Southern politicians holding seats in the US House of Representatives and in the US Senate. Presidents after Andrew Johnson began caving in to Southern demands.
D.W. Griffith made his landmark film, Birth of a Nation, in 1915. This piece about the Civil War and its aftermath was hugely successful, and remains one of movie-making’s pioneering Credit: public domainmoments.
However, the film was based on a novel, The Klansman, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan as a chivalrous organization of law, order, and heroic virtue. Woodrow Wilson felt the same about the Klan, and excerpts from books he’d written were used as caption cards in Griffith’s silent film as ringing endorsements.
The Klan that Woodrow Wilson and D.W. Griffith were both championing was not the original KKK of the post-Civil War South. That organization had ceased to exist decades before. [The First Klan’s forming is erroneously credited to the racist and vastly overrated General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He did not create the Klan, but he was one of its earliest leaders. It was he who transformed the random high-jinks of night-riders in sheets, “spooking” superstitious blacks for laughs, into the terror group it became].
The Second Klan was a product of Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915.
But it was going nowhere. In perhaps one of American history’s greatest ironies, however, it was in Northern states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois that the KKK was revitalized. It was not until a coal dealer named David C. Stephenson moved to Indianapolis in 1920 and joined the Klan that it became a national organization. He recruited heavily and became a leader “up Nawth”. [Stephenson later abducted an 18-year-old girl, crossed into Illinois with her, and raped her. The distraught girl took poison when he took her home – Stephenson refused to get her medical treatment and she died. He went to prison for rape and murder in late 1925. His Klan buddies abandoned him, and he systematically began spilling secrets that led to many more public officials’ arrests and imprisonment.]
Stephenson’s efforts led to the Klan not only being a domestic terrorist organization. It also gained political clout (backing Klan sympathizers to public office, whether local or in Washington, DC). This political machine had as its center of power Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana even elected a Governor – Ed Jackson – who was an active member and supporter of The Klan during this time. The Indianapolis KKK chapter was the largest in the country with 28,000 members at its peak, with a further 10,000 women auxiliary Klan members. The Klan even had its own newspaper, The Fiery Cross, published in Indianapolis (with 125,000 subscribers nationwide). Indianapolis and its suburban areas became Sundown Towns. [Directly southeast is a famous one Sundown Town, Martinsville. It was there in 1968 a young woman was stabbed to death with a screwdriver by a former Klan member while she was selling encyclopedias door-to-door. She happened to be African-American.]
Klan “values” (with a peak membership of 3 million in 1925, it was very pervasive) became a validation and vindicator for some towns’ excluding people of color from their communities. From the culture of Jim Crow America took its cues in the 1920s and early 1930s, and it was from here that Sundown Towns knew they had silent supporters.
Most new community promoters wanting to attract settlement sent out promotional flyers. These circulars went to realtors and area land speculators.
What were the key selling points for Mena, Arkansas (founded in 1896) when it was trying to attract homesteaders? In addition to “Cool Summers” and “Pretty Homes” Mena also boasted it had “No Negroes”!
Other towns reveled in their abilities to stay all white, even in the case of transient blacks just passing through.
A headline story in a Norman, Oklahoma, newspaper championed its citizenry for running a group of “Race” musicians out of town. This group had been hired by the University of Oklahoma to play a dance. Near the start of their set, locals gathered around the school and began stoning its windows and calling out threats. The students who’d hired the band circled their wagons around the musicians, and police were called.
No arrests were made, but the group of “Race” musicians were escorted to the nearest train station and set aboard, bound for Fort Worth, Texas. “DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU HERE, UNDERSTAND?” headlined a newspaper item about the incident.
Just as peacock-proud for keeping the community all white in the face of an African-American incursion was Harrison, Arkansas. One of its news stories was titled “DRIVE NEGROES FROM HARRISON – Crowd Whips Credit: public domainSeveral and Orders Them to Leave”.
In contemporary Germany, Hitler’s rise brought anti-Semitism to a frothing boil. Germany had many Sundown Towns with signs reading “No Jews Allowed”. Surprisingly, when the 1936 Olympics came to Germany, Hitler ordered those signs removed to avoid embarrassment in the face of the international community that would soon be in his country.
Hitler’s order was in direct contrast to Southern California’s response during the earlier 1932 Olympics. Southern California had many Sundown Towns (in addition to Hawthorne) with signs clearly set up to encourage blacks to simply keep moving on. Apparently, it was okay to not welcome blacks in California towns, because the City of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles, the State of California, and the United States Government did not require any of the communities surrounding the 1932 Olympic Games venue to remove their Sundown billboards and signs.
It is amazing that even Hitler recognized the importance of downplaying such racism under global scrutiny when Los Angeles (and America) could not.
Perhaps the largest single area of concentration of Sundown Towns was (and remains) in Southern Illinois, in the region called “Little Egypt” (the part of the state where the pyramidal mounds of the Mississippi Indians were built in Cahokia, Illinois in about 1050 CE).
Anna, Illinois, is a chicken-splat wide spot in the road in Union County that was notorious nationally as a Sundown Town. Anna’s 1954 signs prohibiting blacks were commented upon in the national press. Furthermore, the residents of Anna used to, and still will, tell newcomers a not very funny “joke”: the town’s name “Anna” stood for “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”.
Proximity to a major city does not mean Sundown Towns can’t flourish. Chicago, Illinois, the great shining light of culture and reason in Illinois does not escape unscathed. It had several notorious Sundown Towns or suburbs surrounding the city proper (Kenilworth, Cicero, and Berwyn, for example). Long Island had Levittown (near New York City); Ohio had Parma (near Cleveland); and Michigan had Dearborn and Grosse Pointe (both near Detroit).
Traveling in the 1920s through the 1950s could be hazardous for the average black motorist. Often, the unwary traveler would not know places to avoid. In 1936, anCredit: Victor H. Green, 1940 enterprising publisher created a “safe passage” guide for blacks. It was called The Negro Motorist Green-Book, and it helped African-Americans navigate the highways and byways of racist rural America by listing restaurants and hotels that catered to them. It also clearly spelled out Sundown Towns to avoid.
Trivially, many of the commonalities and banalities of daily life in America are products of Sundown Towns. A few of these are Kentucky Fried Chicken (Corbin, Kentucky); Spam (Austin, Minnesota); Krispy Kreme Donuts (since 2002, in a new home, Effingham, Illinois); and Tootsie Rolls (West Lawn, a Sundown section of Chicago).
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a successful author and the creator of literary character, Tarzan. He was born in the Sundown Town of Oak Park, California. As his pockets lined with cash from his creation he started another town in honor of The Ape Man – it was named Tarzana, and it, too, was a Sundown Town.
Highland Park, Utah (and Mormons until the mid to late 20th Century actively discriminated against black Mormons in matters of ministerial postings), carried a proviso on deeds for a land development there:
“The buyer agrees that no estate in and the possession of said premises shall be sold, transferred or conveyed to any person not of the Caucasian race.”
Another interesting fact about Sundown Towns now is they are far and away a more Northern phenomena. For example, Mississippi has White Haven (literally named), and five other known Sundown Towns. All of the Mississippi Sundown Towns are nothing more than hamlets of no importance, strongholds of Southern ignorance.
But at the same time the clearly Northern state of Illinois has over 400 Sundown Towns! Some of these are large, politically and economically influential. Others, like Ziegler or De Land, Illinois, are barely noticeable on a map. Regardless, it is difficult to explain away how such towns survived. It means racism thrives where it is allowed to thrive.
A few Sundown Towns are worth noting as examples of the varying degrees of racism still affecting the town’s demographics. Of these sample Sundown Towns, one is strictly blue-collar, another is an entire Sundown County culturally sheltered against change and outside influence, and the third is a very affluent community just an hour away from New York City (perhaps the world’s largest melting pot).
More infamous, though, is Vidor, Texas. This Sundown Town wallowed in its whiteness. Near the Louisiana border, this town of 11,000 wistfully (according to some of its citizens) longs for the good old days when there were no blacks; they wish they could turn back the clock to that time.
Beaumont, Texas, about 10 miles away, is much more integrated than Vidor. Why? Because Vidor, even today, resists integration. Sundown Towns existed by reputation – some did not even have to post signs for blacks to know they were not welcome.
A black Beaumont resident recalled as a 19-year-old in 1963 he and three black friends got a flat tire on the road in Vidor. A police officer stopped; seeing the situation he told the teen he had until the officer returned from a nearby road exit to clear out (whether the tire was changed or not).
The Klan rallied in Vidor infrequently over the decades. And, should anyone think these incidents are relegated solely to the past, in 1993 an attempt by the Federal government to desegregate its public-funded housing development in Vidor met with outrage from the locals. The Ku Klux Klan rallied and marched in Vidor after a handful of black families were brought in to live in the public housing.
It is appalling to recall the news reports from Texas when refugees from New Orleans, with no homes left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, were shuttled from one East Texas Sundown Town to another. They were refused entry; in one case a bus of black homeless flood victims were met by armed individuals telling them to keep moving and not to get off their bus.
Surprisingly, Vidor was one of the few Texas towns that provided temporary shelter – it was trying to remove the taint of racism. Residents didn’t welcome the black refugees, but they knew it was politic to let them in.
Just this once.
There are other “all white” pockets, however, that make no sense when compared to their state or surroundings.
McLean County, Kentucky, is one such Sundown County. It has been blissfully (to it) white for longer than anyone can remember. There are two African-American families that have been allowed to live in peace there. They are not embraced, but are merely tolerated (they have lived there for many decades). The populace of the county treats these blacks as tokens, and they use them to congratulate themselves about their forward-thinking and to show publicly they are not racist. [“See? There’s our black people, right over there – both of ’em!”]
Yet, without having a sign that clearly says “Whites Only”, McLean County (and more onerously its county seat of Calhoun) is a Sundown community. The word “nigger” can be heard off-handedly any day of the week in Calhoun. Racist jokes that the denizens think are funny are told and retold. Livermore, Kentucky (a town in McLean County), hosted a lynching in the mid 20th Century. The mere handfuls of token blacks who live in the area of Calhoun do not live in the midst of concentrated white populations.
Not one of the “good” Christians who live in the county would openly admit they discriminate or are racists. In 2010, the local Catholic Church (the only one in Calhoun) was sent its new priest after the older one retired. He happened to be African (from Kenya). The priest moved into the church rectory – after settling into his new digs, he made the mistake of going out to walk around his new town. Police response was immediate, and he was detained on the street unnecessarily while he tried to explain (in his heavily accented English) who he was and why he was walking around Calhoun. He lives there and conducts his Church services. But, unfortunately, the community does not embrace him, and they quietly resent his presence as both a black man and as a “foreigner” (of whom they are all suspicious).
As proof of Calhoun’s (and McLean County’s) Sundown status a look at the most recent 2010 US Census data bears out the claim. In 2010, McLean County’s roughly 60 black Americans accounted for 0.6% of the county’s total population. Unlike the counties in northern Idaho, however, this is no accident of demography – the counties surrounding McLean County had black populations ranging from 4.5% up to 6.6% of their populace. The Commonwealth of Kentucky in the 2010 US Census reported over 9% of its population as African-American or black.
McLean County’s paltry 0.6% black population (when compared to its neighbors and the Commonwealth at large) is proof of its racist Sundown status.
Its status as a Sundown Town is almost legendary.
The machinations of the population, the city government, and the social conditions mean Darien was allowed to stay all white for decades, and proudly so. That began to change in the late 1940s when Laura Hobson wrote a novel called Gentleman’s Agreement that used Darien’s anti-Semitic, Sundown status as its backdrop.
In the book, a newspaper reporter investigates prejudice by changing his last name from “Green” to “Greenberg”. As a “white” man passing as a Jew, he reported on the discrimination practices in Darien. The novel was made into a classic film of the same name starring Gregory Peck in the Green role; Turkish native Elia Kazan directed the movie and it won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
One of Darien’s prized methods of exclusion (and one employed by many Sundown Towns) was exposed in the book and movie. It is called “realty steerage”. It is a practice in which realtors unofficially keep out “undesirables” by not showing them properties, or by purposefully overstating sale prices, anything to subvert a potential home sale to an African-American or to a Jewish person.
The town’s main streets are erratically labeled with street signs, and many cross streets have no signs, either. This discourages visitors. Also, many of the public thoroughfares carry “Private” signs on them. The public beach is accessed via a checkpoint; only residents of Darien can use it. Everything in the town is set up to keep the town white and affluent – its teachers, domestics, police, and other civil servants cannot afford to live there. Most commute from great distances. Thus, the city is a protected enclave of white faces after dark.
In an insincere and hypocritical public service program Darien tried to change its reputation by reaching out to other communities’ “underprivileged”. A program called “A Better Chance” (ABC) was started to allow inner-city children (who must be qualified scholars) to come live in Darien and attend one of its exclusive prep schools for free. This program has not been as successful as Darien would wish the public to believe – the total number of “inner school” children present in the program were few. Also, they were housed in a separate facility for the duration of their stay. They were not encouraged to stay in Darien once their participation in the program was over. Finally, all the students were female (reinforcing the Sundown Town hatred and mistrust of black males).
Darien will claim today it is free of its Sundown past. But so will Vidor, Texas (a town which Darien’s well-heeled denizens would look down upon and not recognize themselves in).
Anyone traveling about, seeing such gated and cordoned-off residential areas, exclusive enclaves, and playgrounds requiring entry passes should ask, “Who are they keeping out?”
* “Sundown”, © 1974, Gordon Lightfoot, Reprise/Warner Bros.