Sundown towns, known as sunset towns or gray towns, were all-white municipalities or neighborhoods that practiced a form of segregation by enforcing restrictions excluding people of non-white races via some combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, and violence. The term came from signs posted that "colored people" had to leave town by sundown.
During the Reconstruction Era, many thousands of towns became sundown towns. In some cases, the exclusion was official town policy or was promulgated by the community's real estate agents via exclusionary covenants governing who could buy or rent property. In others, the policy was enforced through intimidation. This intimidation could occur in a number of ways, including harassment by law enforcement officers.
In 1844 Oregon banned African-Americans from the territory altogether. Those that failed to leave were subject to receiving lashings, under a law known as the "Peter Burnett Lash Law" named for California's first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett. The law was eventually repealed, with no persons ever lashed under the law.
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and especially since the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited racial discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing, the number of sundown towns has decreased. However, as sociologist James W. Loewen writes in his book on the subject, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (2005), it is impossible to precisely count the number of sundown towns at any given time, because most towns have not kept records of the ordinances or signs that marked the town's sundown status. He further notes that hundreds of cities across America have been sundown towns at some point in their history.
Additionally, Loewen notes that sundown status meant more than just that African-Americans were unable to live in these towns. Essentially any African-Americans (or sometimes other ethnic groups) who entered or were found in sundown towns after sunset were subject to harassment, threats, and violent acts—up to and including lynching.
The U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregation of schools unconstitutional in 1954. Sociologist James Loewen argues that the case caused some municipalities in the South to become sundown towns. Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky saw drastic drops in African American populations living in the states following the decision.
Identifying sundown towns
Towns that saw a sharp drop in the African American population between two censuses can be classified as sundown towns if the African American absence was intentional. Credible sources including tax and census records, newspaper articles, county histories, and WPA files are required to confirm a town as a sundown town.
Extensive research beyond examining U.S. Census data is required in order to document a sundown town. Researchers must determine that the absence of African Americans in a town is due to a systematic policy and not change in demographics.
Other people of color targeted
African-Americans were not the only people of color driven out of some towns where they lived. One example, according to Loewen, is that in 1870, Chinese people made up one-third of Idaho's population. Following a wave of violence and an 1886 anti-Chinese convention in Boise, almost none remained by 1910.:51 In another example, the town of Gardnerville, Nevada is said to have blown a whistle at 6 p.m. daily alerting Native Americans to leave by sundown.:23 Three additional examples of the numerous road signs documented during the first half of the 20th century include:
- In Colorado: "No Mexicans After Night".
- In Connecticut: "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark'.
- In Nevada, the ban was expanded to include Japanese.
In Maria Marulanda's 2010 article in the Fordham Law Review titled "Preemption, Patchwork Immigration Laws, and the Potential for Brown Sundown Towns", Marulanda outlines the possibility for non-blacks to be excluded from towns in the United States. Marulanda argued that immigration laws and ordinances in certain municipalities could create similar situations to those experienced by African Americans in sundown towns. Hispanic Americans are likely the target in these cases of racial exclusion.
Described by former NAACP President Julian Bond as "One of the survival tools of segregated life", The Negro Motorist Green Book (at times titled The Negro Traveler's Green Book or The Negro Motorist Green-Book, and commonly referred to simply as the "Green Book") was an annual, segregation-era guidebook for African-American motorists, published by New York travel agent and former Hackensack, New Jersey letter carrier Victor H. Green. It was published in the United States from 1936 to 1966, during the Jim Crow era, when discrimination against non-whites was widespread. Road trips for African-Americans were fraught with inconveniences and dangers because of racial segregation, racial profiling by police, the phenomenon of travelers just "disappearing", and the existence of numerous sundown towns. According to author Kate Kelly, "there were at least 10,000 'sundown towns' in the United States as late as the 1960s; in a 'sundown town' nonwhites had to leave the city limits by dusk, or they could be picked up by the police or worse. These towns were not limited to the South—they ranged from Levittown, New York, to Glendale, California, and included the majority of municipalities in Illinois."
Sundown suburbs and inburbs
Many suburban areas in the United States were incorporated following the establishment of Jim Crow laws. The majority of suburbs were made up of all-white residents from the time they were first created. Harassment and inducements helped to keep African Americans out of new suburban areas. Schooling also played a large role in keeping the suburbs white. The suburbs often did not provide schools for blacks, causing black families to send their children to school in large municipalities such as Atlanta, Georgia. African Americans were forced to pay a fee to the central municipality in order for their children to attend school there. Despite the fee, they were not provided transportation to school in the city. The education barrier to African Americans in the suburbs caused many to migrate to cities across the United States. In addition to the educational barriers, home developers in the 1950s built all-white subdivisions, pushing more African Americans out of the suburbs.
The African Americans that lived in suburban areas were janitors, cooks, and gardeners for white families. The few African Americans that lived in the suburbs occupied their own working-class sections of the neighborhoods. Towns with interracial populations such as Chamblee, Georgia, and Pearl, Mississippi forced their African Americans to leave town as they developed into suburbs.
Sundown towns in popular culture
In her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, poet Maya Angelou describes sundown towns existing in parts of the South. She describes Mississippi as inhospitable to African Americans after dark: "Don't let the sun set on you here nigger, Mississippi."
The 1959 film by Sidney Lumet, The Fugitive Kind, starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, mentions sundown towns. A small town sheriff in the south tells Brando's character about a sign in a town that says, "Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you in this county"
Playwright John Henry Redwood III wrote the play No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs after he saw the words written on a sign from a sundown town in Mississippi. The play is set in a sundown town in the American South.
Some cinematic treatments of the subject include:
- Gentleman's Agreement (1947), was "the only feature film [of that era] to treat sundown towns seriously." :14 "The anti-Nazi ideology opened more sundown suburbs to Jews than to African Americans... Gentleman's Agreement, Elia Kazan's 1948 Academy Award-winning movie [exposed] Darien, Connecticut, as an anti-Jewish sundown town..." :394
- Trouble Behind (1991), a documentary by Robby Henson that examines the history of and legacy of racism in the town of Corbin, Kentucky, a small railroad community noteworthy both as the home of Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken and for "its race riots of 1919, during which over two hundred blacks were loaded onto boxcars and shipped out of town". The film aired at the 1991 Sundance Festival and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize.
- Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America (2006), a documentary by Marco Williams which was inspired by Elliot Jaspin's book Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America (2007).
- The Injustice Files: Sundown Towns (February 24, 2014), an Investigation Discovery documentary by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, executive produced by Al Roker.
- Black Codes (United States)
- Containment (TV series), season 1, episode 12: Micheline explains to her white granddaughter, whose boyfriend is black, that she grew up in a sundown town and had to leave to protect the safety of her beau (Bert), who was black, and her daughter Leanne, who was beaten up even though Bert left town before sundown
- Jim Crow laws
- Racial segregation in the United States
- Morgan, Gordon D. (1973). Black Hillbillies of the Arkansas Ozarks. Assistance by Dina Cagle and Linde Harned. Fayetteville: U of AR Dept. of Sociology. p. 60. OCLC 2509042.
- Oppenheim, Keith (December 13, 2006). "Texas city haunted by 'no blacks after dark' past". CNN. Retrieved 22 May 2011.
- Brown, DeNeen L. (2017-06-07). "When Portland banned blacks: Oregon's shameful history as an 'all-white' state". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-06-07.
- Loewen, James W. (2005). Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New York: The New Press. p. 218. ISBN 156584887X.
- James, Loewen (2009). "Sundown Towns and Counties: Racial Exclusion in the South". Southern Cultures. 15: 22–44.
- Loewen, James (2009). "Sundown Towns and Counties: Racial Exclusion in the South". Southern Cultures. 15: 22–44.
- "Shedding Light on Sundown Towns". www.asanet.org. Retrieved 2017-03-16.
- Carlson, Peter (February 21, 2006). "When Signs Said 'Get Out'". The Washington Post.
- Higley, Stephen R. (1995). Privilege, Power, and Place: The Geography of the American Upper Class. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 61–63. Print.
- Marulanda, Maria (2010). "Preemption, Patchwork Immigration Laws, and the Potential for Brown Sundown Towns". Fordham Law Review. 79: 321.
- Kelly, Kate (March 8, 2014) [January 6, 2014]. "The Green Book: The First Travel Guide for African-Americans Dates to the 1930s". Huffington Post.
- "The Negro Motorist Green-Book". America On the Move. United States Travel Bureau (1940 ed.). New York City: Victor H. Green.
- Maya, Angelou. I know why the caged bird sings. ISBN 0349005990. OCLC 962406229.
- "Sundown Towns on Stage and Screen". History News Network. Retrieved 2017-03-16.
- Henson, Robby (1991). Trouble Behind. Cicada Films.
- "Archives 1991 Sundance Film Festival: Trouble Behind". Sundance Institute. 1991.
- Scheiderer, David (February 17, 1992). "TV Reviews : A Legacy of Racism in 'Trouble Behind'". Retrieved 2016-04-26.
- Williams, Marco (2006). Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America. Cicada Films.
- Williams, Marco (2006). Banished.
- Jaspin, Elliot (2007). Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465036363.
- Maguire, Ellen (February 19, 2008). "PBS's 'Banished' Exposes the Tainted Past of Three White Enclaves". The Washington Post.
- Penrice, Ronda Racha (February 25, 2014). "'Sundown Towns' under a spotlight in new Investigation Discovery documentary". The Grio.
- "Injustice Files: Sundown Towns". Investigation Discovery. February 14, 2014.
- Bibbs, Rebecca (April 3, 2016). "Madison County communities strive to overcome 'sundown town' reputation". The Herald Bulletin.
- Byrne, Robert (2009). Sundown Towns in the D.C. Metropolitan Area: a Comparative Analysis.
- Esquibel, Elena (2011). Performing History: Oral Histories of Sundown Towns in Southern Illinois.
- Hallett, Vicky. "Sundown towns: No blacks after dark (Interview with James Loewen)". U.S. News. Archived from the original on March 18, 2013.
- Huber, Patrick (2002). Race Riots and Black Exodus in the Missouri Ozarks, 1894–1905.
- Kirk, John (2014). Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas: New Perspectives.
- Loewen, James W. (2009). "Sundown Towns and Counties: Racial Exclusion in the South". Southern Cultures.
- Loewen, James (November 1, 2015). "Guest Commentary: Sundown towns remain problem". The News-Gazette.
- Smith, Robert (April 28, 2015). "An 'Occupied' Milwaukee: Part I". Milwaukee Magazine.
- "Sundown Town". CNN. December 8, 2006. Article on Vidor, Texas' long time reputation as a sundown town.
- "Sundown Towns". Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
- "Sundown towns". Tougaloo.edu.
- "Information on racial proportions of towns in the United States". U.S. Census Bureau.
- Loewen, James. "Bibliography of Books that Treat Sundown Towns". Tougaloo.edu.
- Loewen, James (October 23, 2005). "Book Talk: Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism". C-SPAN Book TV.
- Loewen, James W. & Cheney, Matt. "Map of Sundown Towns in the United States".
- The Negro Travelers' Green Book (Interactive ed.). The University of South Carolina Library. Spring 1956.