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What is a Sundown Town?

A Sundown Town refers to communities that historically enforced racial segregation by excluding non-white individuals after dark, often through discriminatory local laws or violent practices. These towns symbolize a dark chapter in America's struggle for civil rights. How have Sundown Towns shaped our nation's history, and what is their legacy today? Join us as we delve deeper into this complex topic.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A sundown town is a town where only people of a certain ethnic, social, or religious group are allowed in the town after dark. The most infamous examples of sundown towns are probably the all-white towns which were scattered across the United States well through the 1970s. Sundown towns began to wane with the advent of civil rights legislation, and there is some argument as to whether or not such towns still exist.

Before the passage of civil rights legislation, residents of a sundown town did not pussyfoot around. Most had signs with statements like “racial expletive, don't let the sun set on YOU in town name.” Depending on the location of the sundown town, the sign might specify black Americans, Native Americans, Asians, or residents of Central and Southern America, with language ranging from the relatively tame “No Mexicans” to much more racially charged language. Sundown towns in some areas were also closed to members of the Jewish faith after dark.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

By excluding unwanted minorities after dark, sundown towns could ensure that these minorities could perform menial labor in the town during the day. Women might commute into the town to work as maids, for example, or men would work for municipal garbage collection agencies. All of these individuals, however, were expected to leave the town at dusk, or face severe consequences.

In more mild cases, a curfew violator in a sundown town would simply be escorted beyond city limits by law enforcement. In more severe instances, people would be severely beaten for being found in the town after dark, and in some cases people were lynched or shot for being in town after dark. Many minorities chafed against the rules in sundown towns historically, but were afraid to oppose them for fear of retribution which could cost them their lives.

Travelers from regions without sundown towns often found such towns and their accompanying offensive signage both curious and disturbing. In the case of Southern and Midwestern sundown towns which banned blacks, for example, locals simply avoided the town after dark, but visiting blacks might find themselves in awkward situations because they didn't see or understand the warning signs of the sundown town.

Officially, sundown towns no longer exist. However, some communities do demonstrate a marked degree of racial segregation which suggests that the community has made an active effort to keep unwanted minorities from settling in the area, despite anti-discrimination laws. Several organizations including the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development attempt to investigate reports of such blatant segregation, to determine whether or not housing bias is involved, and, if so, to prosecute those responsible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Sundown Town?

A Sundown Town refers to a community, typically in the United States, that practiced a form of racial segregation by excluding non-white individuals after dark. The term comes from signs that were once posted at town limits stating that people of color must leave by sundown. These towns enforced such policies through legal means or through intimidation and violence. While most prevalent from the late 19th century until the civil rights movement, some towns unofficially maintained these practices into the late 20th century.

How many Sundown Towns were there in the United States?

While the exact number is difficult to determine, research by sociologist James Loewen, author of "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism," suggests that there were over 10,000 Sundown Towns across the United States at their peak. These towns were not limited to the traditionally segregated South but were found in nearly every state, with a significant number in the Midwest and West as well.

Were Sundown Towns legal, and how were they enforced?

Sundown Towns were not legal under the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law. However, they were often enforced through local laws, discriminatory practices by law enforcement, and community complicity. Enforcement methods included police harassment, threats, and violence to ensure that African Americans and other minorities left the town by sundown. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation made such practices explicitly illegal, but enforcement of these laws was another matter.

Are there still Sundown Towns today?

Officially, Sundown Towns no longer exist, as they are illegal under federal law. However, some towns may still have reputations or legacies as former Sundown Towns, which can influence current demographics and social attitudes. While overt signage and laws have disappeared, subtle forms of discrimination and unwelcoming attitudes may persist, deterring minority presence and maintaining a town's historical racial homogeneity.

What has been done to address the legacy of Sundown Towns?

Efforts to address the legacy of Sundown Towns include historical research to bring awareness to their existence, such as the work by James Loewen. Some communities have taken steps to acknowledge their past and promote racial reconciliation through public apologies, historical markers, and educational programs. Additionally, federal and state fair housing laws aim to prevent discrimination in housing, which can help dismantle the lingering effects of Sundown Town policies.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Phaedrus

When I moved from a northern state to a Deep South state, I asked a neighbor about another city that was within reasonable driving distance. He told me it was a "sundown town". There weren't any official signs, but local African-Americans knew they weren't welcome there after dark. I'd never heard of such a thing, but he went on to tell me the names of other towns with similar attitudes.

That was in the 1980s, and since then I've noticed that most of the towns on that list were no longer considered "sundown towns". The practice was bad for business, and most of the people who enforced that unwritten law had passed away. There are still a few sundown towns in this area, but there have not been any major incidents involving people of color.

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