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
. 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
sundown towns in the
country since the legislation in the 1960s inspired by the American Civil Rights
, though de facto
sundown towns existed at least into the 1970s.
cases, signs were placed at the town's borders with statements
similar to the one posted in Hawthorne, California 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
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
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 Illinois, 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
, 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
minorities were also driven out of some of the towns where they
example according to Loewen is that in 1870, Chinese made up
one-third of the population of Idaho.
a wave of violence and an 1886 anti-Chinese convention in Boise, almost none remained by 1910. The town of Gardnerville,
Nevada is said to have blown a whistle at 6 p.m. daily
Americans to leave by sundown.In addition, Jews were excluded from living in some sundown
towns, such as Darien, Connecticut.
Books that refer to Sundown Towns
James Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns
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.
- 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.
- Loewen 2005, page 218.
- Loewen 2005, page 51.
- Loewen 2005, page 23
- Loewen 2005, page 257.