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A sundown town is a town that is or was all white on purpose. The term is widely used in the United States and Canada in areas from Ohio to Oregon and well into the South. Even in Canada many towns in Southern Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec, were sundown towns prior to 1982, when it was outlawed. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns”. The term is less common in suburbia and on the East Coast, even though the concept was still prevalent in those places. Residents were often systematically excluded from living in or sometimes even passing through these communities after the sun went down. This allowed maids and workmen to provide unskilled labor during the day. They came into existence in the late 19th century during what sociologists have described as the nadir of American race relations. Sundown towns existed throughout the nation, but more often were located in the northern states that were not pre-Civil War slave states. There have not been any de jure sundown towns in the country since the legislation in the 1960s inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement, though de facto sundown towns existed at least into the 1970s.


In some cases, signs were placed at the town's borders with statements similar to the one posted in Hawthorne, Californiamarker which read "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne" in the 1930s.

In some cases, the exclusion was official town policy or through restrictive covenants agreed to by the real estate agents of the community. In others, the policy was enforced through intimidation. This intimidation could occur in a number of ways, including harassment by law enforcement officers.

Though no one knows the number of sundown towns in the United States, the largest attempt made to determine how common they were estimated that there were several thousand towns throughout the nation. The highest proportion of documented sundown towns are in the state of Illinoismarker, but that may not be truly representative of their distribution, as sundown towns are difficult to pin down given the reluctance for the towns themselves to have, or to reveal, official documents stating their status as sundown towns.

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 Loewen writes in his book on the subject, 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. His book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, said that several cities across America may have been sundown towns at some point in their history.

Loewen's book mentions that sundown status meant more than just African-Americans not being able to live in these towns. Essentially any African-American (or sometimes other groups) who came into sundown towns after sundown were subject to harassment, threats, and violent acts—up to and including lynching.

Other minorities targeted

In addition to the expulsion of African Americans from some small towns, Chinese Americans and other minorities were also driven out of some of the towns where they lived. One example according to Loewen is that in 1870, Chinese made up one-third of the population of Idahomarker. Following a wave of violence and an 1886 anti-Chinese convention in Boisemarker, almost none remained by 1910. The town of Gardnerville, Nevadamarker is said to have blown a whistle at 6 p.m. daily alerting Native Americans to leave by sundown.In addition, Jews were excluded from living in some sundown towns, such as Darien, Connecticutmarker.

Books that refer to Sundown Towns

James Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns,[98489] explains the topic thoroughly. Several other books also demonstrate the existence of sundown towns. Sundown Towns are mentioned in: Following the Color Line, by Ray Stannard Baker; Free But Not Equal, by V. Jacque Voegeli; Black Ohio and the Color Line, by David Gerber; The Negro in Indiana, by Emma Thornbrough; Mobile Americans: Residential and Social Mobility in Omaha, by Howard Chudacoff; Race and Kinship in a Midwestern Town, by James DeVries; The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot by Robery Senechal.


  1. Laura Wexler, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The Washington Post, October 23, 2005, p. BW03. A review of Loewen's book. Accessed online 9 July 2006.
  2. Loewen 2005, page 218.
  3. Loewen 2005, page 51.
  4. Loewen 2005, page 23
  5. Loewen 2005, page 257.

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