What are 'sundown towns'? Historically all-white towns in America see renewed scrutiny thanks to 'Lovecraft Country'

Jonathan Majors
Jonathan Majors stars in the new HBO series, "Lovecraft Country," which has been prompting discussions about so-called sundown towns in the U.S. (Mary Mathis for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

As Black Lives Matter-inspired protests occur nightly in cities across the country, some Black people are speaking out about how simply going for an evening walk in their mostly white towns can feel like taking their life into their hands. And that's because, historically, it has meant that. But does it still mean that today?

A recent tweet from Lake Oswego, Ore., for example, went viral, racking up more than 45,000 likes, after sharing an anonymous letter that was sent to a local family, asking them to remove their Black Lives Matter window art. “100% on-brand for Lake Oswego,” the tweet noted, prompting other local Black residents to weigh in on KGW8.

“As a Black man living in an area like Lake Oswego, there’s certain things that other people can do that I can’t do. I can’t go jogging at night," 25-year-old Justus Rogers said, explaining that doing so could make him a target by his mostly white neighbors. Also weighing in for that story was longtime Lake Oswego resident and co-founder of Respond To Racism In LO Willie Poinsette, featured in a documentary short about the town called “Lake ‘No Negro.’” “This town was a little town that rich doctors and lawyers and people had their summer cottages here, and they would have Black people come and do domestic work and those kinds of things,” she said. “But by sundown, you have to be out of this town.”

Poinsette seemed to be referencing so-called sundown towns, the traditional name for a town “that is whites only — particularly after dark.” It’s a term that seems to be popping up everywhere on social media, especially since the release of Jordan Peele’s HBO series Lovecraft Country, based on a 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff but inspired by a 2005 book called Sundown Towns by sociologist James Loewen. In Peele’s onscreen depiction, the main characters are “pulled over by a police officer who informs them they are in a ‘sundown county’ and then threatens to lynch them unless they can leave the county before sundown.”

“The first thing you need to know about sundown towns, and what Lovecraft Country gets right, is it’s not a Southern phenomenon,” Loewen tells Yahoo Life. “They’re all over the place.”

In his book, he writes, “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,’” explaining that these towns “are (or were) all white by design,” and adding that, at least in part, “these facts remained hidden because of our cultural tendency to connect extreme racism with the South.”

In 2019, Heather O’Connell published a paper in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity called “Historical Shadows: The Links between Sundown Towns and Contemporary Black-White Inequality.” In it, she wrote that “sundown towns are a key, yet often invisible, piece of our history that reshaped dramatically the social and demographic landscape of the United States,” and argued that these towns are “(primarily) a thing of the past.” But just last month, author Morgan Jerkins wrote regarding sundown towns, “With the rise of hangings of Black men across the nation this summer, I’m not so sure anymore.”

In her article for Medium, Jerkins wrote that a “Los Angeles-based woman … who had witnessed both the 1965 and 1992 riots” once told her “there are only two regions in America: Up South and Down South,” explaining that “Black people had fled to Los Angeles during the Great Migration only to be confronted with the same dynamics they thought they were escaping, just in a new area code.”

Jerkins continued, “Sundown towns may be an invisible piece of American history to some, but in my own experience, Black people have always admonished each other about where to go, when to stay, and when to leave. ... Sundown towns have never gone away. … And sometimes, white people do not need the cloak of the night to shield their atrocities. We’ve seen this in a viral video from 1975 of white kids harassing Black kids in Rosedale, New York, or in ProPublica’s 2019 report from Anna, Illinois — which one local told the reporter stands for ‘Ain’t No N*****s Allowed.’ I’m reminded of Ahmaud Arbery who, while running for exercise, was hunted down and killed by white men in Brunswick, Georgia. … So long as Black people are seen as a threat when we move around, white people are hellbent to maintain their homogenous towns by any means necessary. For many Black Americans, the difference in freeway exits or a redirection of routes can be a matter of life and death.”

Loewen says that when he began his research on sundown towns, he underestimated the number he would find and where he would find them. And, due to what he calls “Hollywood treatment,” he’d fully expected overtly racist states like Mississippi to be the main culprit. But, he says, that was not the case. Despite the fact that Maya Angelou once called the state "Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, N*****, Mississippi,” Loewen explains that he’s found less than 10 there — but 506 in Illinois, noting that “Pennsylvania possibly had more sundown towns than any other single state.”

Loewen says media portrayals of these towns are partly responsible for peddling this inaccurate belief, saying, “When they situate a movie in a sundown town, such as the famous basketball movie, Hoosiers, they disguise it. They put in a couple of Black folks… [But] Hoosiers is mainly about how one sundown town basketball team defeated another sundown town basketball team while playing in a third sundown town.”

Another egregious example, Loewen says, was that of the 2018 Academy Award–winning film Green Book, named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, published for nearly three decades in order to help Black travelers find safe places to eat, sleep and get gas while navigating Jim Crow America. The first of the books was released in 1936, and rightfully so, as, at the time, “44 out of the 89 counties that lined Route 66… were all-white communities known as ‘sundown towns.’”

In a 2016 piece for the Atlantic, author and cultural critic Candacy Taylor wrote, “On Route 66, every mile was a minefield. Businesses with three ‘K’s in the title, such as the Kozy Kottage Kamp or the Klean Kountry Kottages, were code for the Ku Klux Klan and only served whites. Black motorists of course also had to avoid sundown towns like Edmond, Oklahoma. In the 1940s, the Royce Café, located right on Route 66, proudly announced on its postcards that Edmond [OK] was ‘A Good Place to Live.’ 6,000 Live Citizens. No Negroes.’”

Loewen explained that, despite the acclaim Green Book received, its historical accuracy is suspect. In the film, he says, an unlikely pair “drives successfully across Indiana — where there’s at least 300 sundown towns. They drive successfully across Illinois — where there’s at least 500 sundown towns. They drive across part of Iowa with 200 sundown towns … Finally, they find themselves in Mississippi and damned if they don’t run into a sundown town. Now there ain’t but three of them in Mississippi, [but] it’s just magic how sundown towns appear when you’re [filming] in Mississippi.”

Loewen has created the “the world's only registry of [American] sundown towns,” which is based on a compilation of data found from the accounts of locals, written articles, historical events and census records. But he makes it clear that “if a town is not listed, that doesn't mean it isn’t a sundown town.” Furthermore, just because a town is relinquished of its sundown status, doesn’t mean Black people would be safe.

For example, in July, a nurse in Valley Stream, N.Y., on Long Island, made headlines after claiming that her neighbors had been racially targeting her — one going as far as to threaten to “get [her] erased.” After three years of alleged abuse, her neighbors were finally arrested and charged with harassment last week. Valley Stream, according to Loewen’s website, had at one point been a known sundown town, but is listed as “surely not” one anymore. The current disparity did not surprise Loewen, who explained that it was commonly said “If you could see the water, either the south or the Atlantic Ocean, you were [already] in a sundown town [because] Black folks, pretty much, could only live in communities that were on the interior.”

And in June, Robert Fuller was found hanging from a tree in Palmdale, Calif. — also listed as potentially having once been a sundown town, but is no longer. And while the Los Angeles Police Department has since ruled the 24-year-old’s death a suicide due to him having no signs of a struggle and a documented history of mental illness, many believe that there is more to the story, with one longtime resident referring to the area where Fuller was killed as “the Confederacy of Southern California.

Loewen says that although Black people are beginning to live in areas that were once sundown towns, they still suffer from the residual effects of such violent segregation, which he calls “second-generation sundown towns.” He notes that some of their key characteristics are “an overwhelmingly white police force that engages in [Driving While Black] policing and an overwhelmingly white teaching staff,” and names Ferguson, Mo., where Black teenager Michael Brown was killed in 2014, as one of these.

Loewen has recommendations for how such towns can put their white supremacist pasts behind them. “Every sundown town in America needs to take the following three steps, even if it’s no longer all white,” he says. First, these places need to admit their past. Then, apologize for what has taken place. And third, vow that it will no longer be the case, by “hiring black cops and black teachers — and helping them live in town.” Earlier this year, Norman City, Okla., began the process by “formally acknowledging, condemning and apologizing for the city’s former status as a ‘sundown town.’”

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