Sundown Towns Banned Blacks For Over 70 Years

Lewis Mountain Negro Area/National Park Service/Wikimedia/Public Domain


As Black children, many of us knew to be home by the time the streetlights came on, but if you lived in a “sundown town,” making that curfew literally may have been the difference between life and death.

From 1900 to 1970, over 10,000 sundown towns emerged throughout the United States. Appropriately named, these towns strongly suggested that Blacks be inside their homes by the time the sun went down.

Sundown towns were defined by their racial composition as calculated by the census. If a town had no African-Americans on their census roll or no Black-owned homes, then it fit the criteria. However, if Blacks did live in the town, it could still be considered a sundown town if “credible sources confirmed that whites expelled African Americans, or took steps to keep them from moving in.

Some of these towns had a reputation for harassing Blacks after dark while others hung signs along the highways, throughout the town, and on the county line explicitly warning Blacks that they were not welcome.

Being Black once the sun went down could lead to an arrest, assault, or even death.

White residents often used other scare tactics like bumping into the back of Black people’s cars, painting their barns and mules black to signify “no ass was allowed to spend the night,” and brandishing knives and guns as they passed by Black people in town.

In Martinsville, Indiana, two white men used screwdrivers to stab and kill Carole Marie Jenkins while she sold encyclopedias door-to-door after dark.

For Black travelers, deciding where to stop for gas, food, and lodging required careful consideration, prompting publication of The Negro Motorist Green-Book. The Green-Book outlined safe places for African-Americans to stop along their routes as well as information on upcoming conventions, beauty parlors, gas stations, and nightclubs in each state.

In 2014, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after Mike Brown’s death was eerily reminiscent of the climate of sundown towns. The local authors insisted that the town’s residents be in their homes by midnight to avoid confrontation and this type of language reeked of early 20th century racist community policing.

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism is the definitive guide on these controversial communities and if you are interested in diving deeper into the history of these areas purchase a copy here.

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