Was Your Town a Sundown Town?

Was Your Town a Sundown Town?

How to find out if your community intentionally excluded African Americans.

James Loewen


Look into your town's past (companion illustration to an article about Sundown Towns)
© Robert Neubecker

In the fall of 2001, I visited my hometown of Decatur, Illinois, to headline the second Decatur Writers Conference.

At the end of my address, which was on ideas I explored in my best-selling book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, I mentioned my ongoing research on American towns that are intentionally all white—sometimes known as “sundown towns.” I invited those who knew something about the subject to come forward and talk with me. To my amazement, twenty people came down, and they told me stories about every town around Decatur.

Growing up, I knew these towns were all white, but it never occurred to me that this might be on purpose. But yes, every one of these towns prohibited black residents, and so, that evening, the idea that intentional sundown towns were everywhere in America, or at least everywhere in the Midwest, hit me right between the eyes.

I resolved to write a book about the Sundown Town phenomenon. Initially, I imagined I would find maybe ten of these communities in Illinois, where I planned more research than in any other single state, and perhaps fifty across the country. To my astonishment, I have found 500 sundown towns in Illinois alone—and now estimate that, by 1970, their peak, 10,000 existed in the United States.

Sundown towns are communities that for decades—formally or informally—kept out African Americans or other groups.

They are so named because some marked their city limits with placards like the one a former resident of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, remembers from the early 1960s: “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In Our Town.” The term itself was rarely used east of Ohio, but intentionally white communities were common in the East, indeed throughout the nation—except in the traditional South, where they were rare.

Independent sundown towns range in size from hamlets like Alix, Arkansas, population 185, to large cities like Appleton, Wisconsin, with 57,000 residents in 1970. Sometimes entire counties went sundown, usually when their county seats did. “Sundown suburbs” could be even larger, such as Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles; Levittown, on Long Island; and Warren, a Detroit suburb.

Sundown towns weren’t always all-white. Between 1890 and 1954, thousands of independent communities across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African Americans from living in them. Sundown suburbs formed a little later, mostly from 1900 to 1968. Often as a suburb formed or shortly thereafter, it got rid of black residents who lived there prior to incorporation. African Americans were among the earliest residents of what became Edina, for example, the most prestigious suburb of Minneapolis, but in the years after World War I they were barred from its newer subdivisions, and by 1930 they had moved into Minneapolis. Around that time, the slogan in Edina became: “Not one Negro and not one Jew,” and except for live-in servants, it didn’t have any. After World War II, suburb after suburb required all its residential subdivisions to have restrictive covenants stating, in the words of a California example, “No negro, japanese or chinese or any person of african or mongolian descent shall own or occupy any part of said premises.”

In 1968, all this began to change. The federal government passed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, commonly referred to as the “Fair Housing Act”; in addition, in Jones v. Mayer, the Supreme Court held that an 1866 civil rights law bars discrimination in the rental and sale of property. As a result, since 1968 no town (or neighborhood) states openly that it is all white on purpose. Unfortunately, neither the law nor the decision was self-enforcing. In many towns, discrimination simply went underground.

Many communities remain all-white today; whether blacks can reside safely and comfortably within them remains unclear. Some towns and neighborhoods have stayed white by dint of “DWB” violations (harassment by police for “driving while black”), realtor steering, shunning, and other bad behavior by white individuals; violence or threats of same (sometimes directed against the children of the family); and other informal policies.

Some progress has taken place across the country. Towns that in the past kept out Mexicans, Asian Americans, Jews, or Native Americans no longer exclude them today. Sadly, African Americans are often still barred from these communities. More promising still is the fact that more than half of all former sundown towns no longer exclude anyone and now boast an increasing (though small) number of African American households.

Since finishing my book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, I have hoped that Unitarian Universalists would step up and take the lead in abolishing the barriers that keep these communities from accepting black residents.

After all, UUs did play a major role in abolishing slavery and after the Civil War in inviting African Americans to move to their communities. Today, the continued existence of all-white towns like Anna, Illinois—informally nicknamed “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”—or Kenilworth, Chicago’s richest suburb—set up to be free of blacks and Jews from its founding—should offend our sense of decency as it impugns our democracy. It is time to take steps toward truth and reconciliation.

Delegates at the 2007 UUA General Assembly urged UU congregations to research and uncover their complicity with “all types of racial, ethnic, and cultural oppression, past and present, toward the goal of accountability through acknowledgement, apology, repair, and reconciliation.” One way to begin is for UUs to gather information confirming that a given town kept blacks out (if it did).

A first step is to find your town’s census information on racial composition over time. This census website provides the racial proportions of every town in the country with more than 2,500 inhabitants for the years 1860-1980. So do bound volumes of the census at your local public or university library. For smaller towns, count the number of African Americans in the “manuscript census” for 1930 and prior decades. (This is the raw data of the census, available on the web and at large libraries and genealogical collections on microfilm.) Data for 1990 and 2000 is at census.gov via “Census 2000.”

Sharp drops in the black population are of course suspicious. Low numbers of African Americans, decade after decade, are also suspicious, especially if blacks are hardly absent from nearby towns and counties or if the town’s total population was increasing.

Next, go to the library and skim local history books such as centennial histories and county histories. Usually they say nothing about African Americans or racial exclusion, but there can be surprises. If the library has notes from the WPA Federal Writers Project (c.1935-40), look at those. Also, check vertical files (newspaper clippings) on “blacks,” “Negroes,” “segregation,” “Ku Klux Klan,” and related topics.

Scan local newspapers for the decade between two adjacent censuses that show a sharp decline in black population. Do they describe any actions whites took to cause the decline? Sometimes the nearest newspaper outside the town in question will be more forthcoming.

Ask the librarian in charge of the local history collection if he or she knows anything about the absence of African Americans. Begin gently, maybe by asking what the town’s major employers used to be. Eventually note the town’s whiteness, year after year, and ask, “Have you ever heard that [name of town] used to keep out blacks?” Maybe mention that some nearby towns (by name) used to do so and follow by asking if this community had the same policy. If your respondent says yes, then ask how they heard it, from whom, about when (year), etc.

Follow up by asking, “Who knows the most about the history of the town?” Every town has an expert. Then interview (in person) that person or persons. Ask them, “Who else should I talk with?” Is there a genealogical society? If so, attend its next meeting, after talking with its leader.

Oral history is fine, so long as it is solid. Thus, if a person says, “Blacks were not allowed . . .” then ask, “How do you know that?” Ask for details and look for written sources, such as some ordinance about keeping out blacks (or another group).

Repeat this process with the city clerk and the head of the local historical society. Bear in mind that these folks don’t want to say anything bad about their town if they can help it. In person, however, they don’t want to lie. And of course, you flatter them by telling them (correctly) that they are the expert on the town’s history. Also interview senior citizens and longtime realtors.

With some information, you may be able to triangulate with confirmation from others. For example, if you hear that your town once had a black or interracial neighborhood and learn its location, check land ownership documents and deeds of sale. Did many homes change hands at about the same time? African American senior citizens in the nearest multiracial town may know about your town, at least by reputation and sometimes with telling details. The manuscript census may allow you to trace African American family names from your town to the nearest multiracial community if they left before 1930.

Always recall that the overwhelming whiteness of a town or neighborhood might be an accident, that perhaps no African Americans ever happened to go there. We cannot classify an “all-white town” as a “sundown town” unless we have evidence about its racial policies.

Once you have shown that a community or neighborhood was white on purpose, publicizing your information is the first step toward ameliorating the situation, especially in metropolitan areas.

Even though proud to be overwhelmingly white, elite sundown suburbs try to avoid being known for it. This is the “paradox of exclusivity.” Residents of Kenilworth, for instance, want their town to be known as “exclusive,” which says good things about them—that they have the money, status, and social savvy to be accepted in such a locale. Residents do not want to be known as “excluding,” especially on racial or religious grounds, because that would say bad things about them—that they are racist, for one. So long as such towns appear to be accidentally white, they avoid this difficulty.

Many residents of sundown towns ache to get beyond their tradition of exclusion. So long as their communities remain overwhelmingly nonblack, however, it is unclear whether African American families can prudently live in them. Even today, most municipalities are unlikely to change by themselves, which is why residential segregation remains our nation’s most intractable civil rights problem.

Every sundown town needs to be asked to do three things to overcome its past. First, it must admit it. Second, it must apologize for it. Third, it should state that it no longer discriminates, and then back that statement with changed actions: a civil rights ombudsman or human relations board to hear complaints, for example.

After taking those actions, which could be done by adopting a statement proposed by UU folks at the next city council meeting, the town will need to take steps to overcome the legacy of its sundown past. Pressure from UU congregations—some of which moved to or formed in white suburbs in the 1960s precisely because they were homogeneous—can prompt communities to take these steps, especially when that pressure comes buttressed with solid information about their sundown past.