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Sundown towns were a form of segregation, in which a town, city, or neighborhood in the United States was purposely all-white, excluding people of other races. These restrictions were enforced by some combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, and violence. The term came from signs that were posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as sunset towns or gray towns. Since the Supreme Court's 1917 ruling in Buchanan v. Warley, racial discrimination in housing sales has been illegal, but lingering racial prejudice against black residents remains in certain towns to this day.
In some communities, signs were placed at the town's borders with statements similar to the one posted in Hawthorne, California, which read "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne" in the 1930s. James W. Loewen, the Washington, D.C.-based author, told The Washington Post in 2006 he found reports of thousands of such places, and sometimes, the sign makers tried to get clever. Some came in a series, like the old Burma-Shave signs, saying, " . . . If You Can Read . . . You'd Better Run . . . If You Can't Read . . . You'd Better Run Anyway."
During the nadir of American race relations, about 1890-1940, many thousands of towns became sundown towns. African-Americans, who had lived predominantly in rural areas in the northern states, moved to major urban centers that were not sundown towns. Towns in the southern states, where many of the workers were African-Americans, were less often 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.
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and especially since the Civil Rights 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 city of Goshen, Indiana was a sundown town for much of its history, forbidding African Americans from living in, or entering, the town, often under threat of violence. In March 2015, the city acknowledged this part of its past, apologizing and saying that it no longer condones such behavior.
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 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.
Jews were also excluded from living in some sundown towns, such as Darien, Connecticut:257 and Lake Forest, Illinois (which kept anti-Jewish and anti-African American housing covenants until 1990).
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 published by Hackensack, New Jersey letter carrier turned New York travel agent Victor H. Green, for African-American motorists. 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, N.Y., to Glendale, Calif., and included the majority of municipalities in Illinois."
Some cinematic treatments of the subject include:
- 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 in the United States
- Jim Crow laws
- Racial segregation in the United States
- The Negro Motorist Green Book
- 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.
- "Sundown Towns on Stage and Screen".
- Wexler, Laura (October 23, 2005). "Book Review: Darkness on the Edge of Town (A review of SUNDOWN TOWNS: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen)". The Washington Post. p. BW03. Retrieved 9 July 2006.
- Carlson, Peter (February 21, 2006). "When Signs Said 'Get Out'". The Washington Post.
- “Focus; Sundown Towns: a Hidden Dimension of Segregation in America,” 2005-09-20, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 21, 2016.
- Oppenheim, Keith (December 13, 2006). "Texas city haunted by 'no blacks after dark' past". CNN. Retrieved 22 May 2011.
- Loewen, James W. (2005). Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New York: The New Press. p. 218. ISBN 156584887X.
- Harte, Tricia (11 March 2015). "'Sundown Town' recognizes Goshen's past racial problems". WNDU Channel 16. Gray Television, Inc. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
Goshen, the seat of Elkhart County, is attempting to take steps to formally recognize racial discrimination in its past, and acknowledge what the city will continue to do to bolster diversity. Tuesday, March 10, the city’s Community Relations Commission unanimously passed a resolution acknowledging the 'racially exclusionary past of Goshen, Indiana, as a ‘Sundown Town.’'
- "A RESOLUTION ACKNOWLEDGING THE RACIALLY EXCLUSIONARY PAST OF GOSHEN, INDIANA, AS A 'SUNDOWN TOWN'". March 2015. Retrieved March 27, 2015.
- Higley, Stephen R. Privilege, Power, and Place: The Geography of the American Upper Class. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. 61-63. Print.
- 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.
- 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.
- Loewen, James W. (2009). "Sundown Towns and Counties: Racial Exclusion in the South". Southern Cultures.
- "Sundown Towns". Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
- "Interview with James Loewen". U.S. News. Archived from the original on March 18, 2013.
- "Sundown Town". CNN. December 8, 2006. Article on Vidor, Texas' long time reputation as a sundown town.
- "Sundown towns". Sundown.afro.illinois.edu.