Last August, there was a lot of attention on “sundown towns” because of the HBO series Lovecraft Country, which references the dark and racist history of the United States. In the series, based on a novel by the same name, three Black travelers drive through 1950s America and get to a sundown town, where they are immediately pulled over by a cop. The cop threatens fatal violence if they don’t leave before sundown.
The scene brought back discussions around the troubled history of sundown towns and how some still do exist in various forms. Sundown towns were real across the U.S. from 1890 to the years following Jim Crow. They were all-white communities or counties that intentionally excluded Black people and other minorities through discriminatory laws, threats, harassment or use of violence.
These all-white communities were named sundown towns because they were places where Black people were allowed in during the day to work or shop but had to be gone by nightfall. “There were thousands of these sundown communities and most of them were predominant in the Midwest, in the West and in the North,” author Candacy Taylor told WBUR. “So most people assume it was the South that was the problem, but that really wasn’t the case.”
After slavery was abolished in the United States, many White lawmakers in the South introduced discriminatory policies leading to the establishment of the Jim Crow era. There was segregation in trains, buses, schools and other public facilities. And it was around this same period that many sundown towns emerged. But these sundown towns were not only in the South as already mentioned.
During the Great Migration, which began in about 1910, large numbers of Black people left the South to escape racism and poverty. Many moved to the North, Midwest, and West, thinking they would find a better life in other areas of the U.S. But they were wrong. History says that as more and more Black people began to migrate to other regions of the country, many towns that were predominantly White started using discriminatory laws and other means to discourage Black people from living among them.
It is unknown exactly how many sundown towns the U.S. had, but historians estimate that there were up to 10,000 sundown towns across the country between 1890 and 1960 and they were mostly in the Mid-West and West. At many sundown towns, signs were posted at the city limits. “N—-r, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On You In Alix”, one of the signs in Alix, Arkansas, in the 1930s, read. Other towns posted: “Whites Only After Dark.”
Some sundown towns also used discriminatory housing covenants to make sure that no Black person would be allowed to purchase or rent a home, according to BlackPast. “Cool Summers, Mild Winters, No Blizzards, No Negroes,” the town of Mena, Arkansas, advertised. There are also stories of how Black people who passed through these sundown towns but did not leave after dark were arrested, beaten, or sometimes killed by White residents.
Of course, there were sundown towns in the North, Midwest, and West that did not display signs warning Black people to stay out, but they enforced racial restrictions through violence. In 1930, two Black teens were lynched in Marion, Indiana, compelling the town’s Black residents numbering about 200 to leave. In the 1950s, a white mob also took to the streets of Vienna, Illinois, after a Black man escaped from prison. The mob set fire to many Black homes, forcing residents of those homes to flee.
And in some sundown towns, businesses that hired Black employees or served Black customers were boycotted by White residents. In some cases, Black motorists who passed through such towns were followed by police or residents to the city limits.
“The sundown town was really a way that the North and West patrolled and monitored race without having the dirty signs of saying ‘colored only’ or ‘whites only,’ ” said Taylor. “[It’s] almost a covert operation because there would just be one sign at the county line saying ‘N-word, don’t let the sun set on you here’.”
As sundown towns rose, Black people or Black travelers who wanted to tour the U.S. found it difficult traveling long distances, especially by car. BlackPast writes that in 1930, 44 of the 89 counties along the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles had no motels or restaurants and forbade Blacks from entering after dark.
Owing to these difficulties, a postal worker from Harlem known as Victor H. Green penned The Negro Motorist Green Book to help Black people or travelers find safe places to stay, shop and eat on the road. Printed from 1936 to 1967, the book was used by two million people.
James Loewen, a sociologist, also researched and wrote the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” in 2005, providing what he calls “the world’s only registry of sundown towns.”
Loewen during his research also found that many of the sundown towns burnt signs, adding that there is no official record that some existed at all. To Taylor, sundown towns are just like any other towns in America.
“I have been to a couple that still seem to hold on to their racist heritage, and they have a large number of white supremacist groups,” the author, who has spent time documenting Green Book sites and exploring how Black Americans can travel safely across the U.S in 2021, said. She added that some towns like Harrison, Arkansas, still display confederate flags and “big, scary signs”.