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Sundown Towns and Counties: Racial Exclusion in the South

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2009
pp. 22-47 | 10.1353/scu.0.0044

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In her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou (here) characterizes Mississippi with the phrase, "Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi." In reality, sundown towns were rare in most of Dixie, and the places they did spread reveal interesting facets of the region's racial history after Reconstruction. At the Clinton Inauguration in 1993, courtesy of the White House.

Between 1890 and 1960, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African Americans from living in them, creating "sundown towns," so named because many marked their city limits with signs typically reading, "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You In —." In addition, some towns in the West drove out or kept out Chinese Americans, and a few excluded Native Americans or Mexican Americans. "Sundown suburbs" developed a little later, most between 1900 and 1968, many of which kept out not only African Americans but also Jews.1

This is a misunderstood phenomenon, especially as manifested in the North. African Americans surely never uprooted by choice, and investigation reveals that most white towns are so by design. In Illinois, for example, 502 towns were all white or almost so, decade after decade; many still are. Research confirms the formal and informal racial policies of 219 of them. Of those, 218, or 99.5%, kept out African Americans. About 500 Illinois communities—two-thirds of all incorporated municipalities larger than 1,000—were sundown towns. Some still are. Oregon, Indiana, and some other northern states show similar proportions.2

These facts remained hidden because of our cultural tendency to connect extreme racism with the South. In reality, sundown towns were rare in most of Dixie, and the places they did spread reveal interesting facets of the region's racial history after Reconstruction. The later development of sundown suburbs in the South emulated northern patterns of race relations. Although we must take note of the gated communities now spreading across the South, the decline of sundown suburbs and towns may show that the region is moving beyond municipality-level and countywide residential exclusion at a faster clip than the Midwest and Northeast.

Defining a Sundown Town

Sundown towns are (or were) all white by design. To determine whether a community is or was a sundown town, considering racial composition is paramount. Towns with no African Americans on their census rolls pass this first test, of course, but so do towns with non-household blacks. Izard County, Arkansas, for example, had 191 black residents in 2000, but only two African American households; the rest were inmates of the state prison. Live-in servants in white households also do not violate the taboo against independent black residents.

A town or county with very few African American households decade after decade, or with a sharp drop in African American populations between two censuses, is a sundown town if their absence is intentional. Credible sources must confirm that whites expelled African Americans, or took steps to keep them from moving in. Such local sources as county histories, WPA files, and even centennial coffee-table books may acknowledge that a community drove out its African American population or took steps to ensure that none ever entered. More often, though, residents do not write such things down, but conversation can be revealing. Credible details about what happened, gathered from more than one person, confirm a town's sundown status. Newspaper articles, tax records, or the "manuscript census" can corroborate oral histories. Information from written and oral sources in nearby towns is also valuable.3

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Although communities need not be all white to qualify as sundown towns, this countywide or municipality-level segregation is different from other types of smaller-scale segregation. Many communities kept African Americans from living in "white" neighborhoods but were not sundown towns unless they drew their municipal boundaries to exclude the black neighborhoods entirely. Neighbors across from the Sojourner Truth Homes protest desegregation in Detroit, Michigan, 1942, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Towns need not be quite all white to be considered sundown...