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Sundown Towns

September 15, 2009

Last night Andrew and I went to a Unit One lecture by Sociologist James W. Loewen on Sundown Towns and racism in small town America.  “Sundown Town” is a name for a town or city where whites collectively drove out and kept out black people (and also sometimes Jews, Native Americans, Latinos).

These communities are sometimes called “sundown towns” because some of them posted signs at their city limits reading, typically, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___.”

Photograph of a sign from a sundown town, from a museum in the South.

The practice began in the late 19th Century, became illegal after the 1960’s and the civil rights movement, but still persisted through the 70’s, and in some cases, still persists today or until very recently.

(These archival images are taken from Professor Loewen’s slideshow on Sundown Towns.)

He’s confirmed over 400 sundown towns in Illinois alone. I used his database to check out some towns I grew up around where I’ve never once seen a black person. The question about some of these rural towns is, do they just happen to be all white, or are they all white on purpose?

Maroa, Illinois, is on his list of confirmed sundown towns (which you can search by state). He writes that the main method of exclusion in Maroa is realtors refusing to sell to blacks, and a realtor told him in 2001 that there was still an ordinance on the books making this official town policy.

The method of exclusion varies by location. Some excluded by violence, threat of violence, police or other official action, and reputation.

You can check out Loewen’s website for more information, for papers on how he conducts his research, how to confirm sundown towns, and how to help him with this project in general. He is looking for volunteers to help him conduct oral histories and research in small towns across the country.

I’m looking forward to reading up on this disturbing side of American history that deserves more attention and understanding.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 29, 2009 8:04 am

    I grew up near Villa Grove IL and I remember they had one of those signs at the four-way stop. They also had a category of “Best Colored Person” in their community Halloween costume contest up until the late 70’s.

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