A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from December 23, 2007
Sundown Town

A “sundown town” is a town where certain groups of people are accepted to work during the day, but not to live there (and sleep there after sundown). The term “sundown town” has been cited in print since at least the 1960s, but was popularized by James W. Loewen in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (2005). The “sundown town’ was prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Texas was identified to have had several “sundown towns.”

Wikipedia: Sundown town
A sundown town was a community in the United States where non-whites — especially African Americans — were systematically excluded from living in or passing through 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. Their continued existence is the subject of some debate.

In some 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 restrictive covenants agreed to by the real estate agents of the community. In others, the racist 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. Most of the 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 Racism, claimed that several cities across America may have been sundown towns at some point in their history. These towns include: Anna, Illinois; Ashland, Illinois; Benton, Illinois; Berwyn, Illinois; Casey, Illinois; Cicero, Illinois; Kennewick, Washington; Myakka City, Florida; Pana, Illinois; Pekin, Illinois; Pinckneyville, Illinois; Vidor, Texas; Vienna, Illinois; Virden, Illinois and West Frankfort, Illinois.

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen
From Maine to California, thousands of communities kept out African Americans (or sometimes Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, etc.) by force, law, or custom. These communities are sometimes called “sundown towns” because some of them posted signs at their city limits reading, typically, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___.” Some towns are still all white on purpose. Their chilling stories have been joined more recently by the many elite (and some not so elite) suburbs like Grosse Pointe, MI, or Edina, MN, that have excluded nonwhites by “kinder gentler means.” When I began this research, I expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (my home state) and perhaps 50 across the country. Instead, I have found more than 440 in Illinois and thousands across the United States. This is their story; it is the first book ever written on the topic.

Google Books
Ghetto Fever
by Thomas V. Millea
Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Company
Pg. 75:
..."sundown" town. Lawndale is a “sunup” community. White people own most of the businesses and provide the governmental and school and social services, but they flee at the first hint of darkness.

Google Books
The American South: A Brief History
by Monroe Lee Billington
New York, NY: Charles Scribners Sons
Pg. 372:
Some southern towns refused to allow Negroes to reside within their city limits, thus becoming known as “sundown towns,” because Negroes who worked or visited…

Google Books
Black and White:
Reflections of a White Southern Sociologist
by Lewis M. Killian
Rowman & Littlefield
Pg. 57:
In Oklahoma I became acquainted with yet other forms of racial discrimination. Although I later realized that my father had been born in a similar town in the mountains of north Georgia, I had never heard of a “sundown town” before. I never saw a sign saying, “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in this town.”

Google Books
The Racial Contract
by Charles Wade Mills
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
Pg. 48:
Consider the curfew laws in segregated neighborhoods earlier in U. S. history [and arguably the continuing informal police practices now], the notices that used to be posted outside “sundown” towns—“Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you here!”

Google Books
The Burger Court: Counter-Revolution or Confirmation?
by Bernard Schwartz
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Pg. 46:
65. In sundown towns, African Americans were not allowed out after dark. See Henry, “Foreword,” in Fisher, A Matter of Black and White, xvi (1995).

Google Groups: alt.folklore.urban
Newsgroups: alt.folklore.urban
From: Arminius
Date: 2000/05/17
Subject: Re: Sundown Towns? 

In article <3922DBF7.C9FF...@mindspring.com>,
RM Mentock wrote:

> I meant, what is the James W. Loewen book, Lies
> My Teacher Told Me, take on it?  Is Loewen presenting
> it as a Lie, and if so how is he countering it?  And
> if Loewen is using it to counter some Lie, what Lie
> is he countering?

The lie Loewen is referring to is one of omission.  Mentions of lynchings, sundown towns, and the like are noticeably absent from most high school textbooks.

Loewen’s latest book, Lies Across America, is a similar critique of American national monuments.  He includes much more detail on sundown towns in this book. 

Google Groups: rec.travel.usa.canada
Newsgroups: rec.travel.usa-canada
From: “Tashi”
Date: Fri, 20 May 2005 16:10:42 GMT
Local: Fri, May 20 2005 11:10 am
Subject: Re: My Southern US trip

If you read the previous posts you would have seen that I was responding to someone elses remark and inquiring about a “sundown town” as I have never heard of this term.

Dallas (TX) Morning News
Shining a light on sundown towns
Large number of whites-only communities surprised author
01:24 PM CST on Monday, November 7, 2005
By JEROME WEEKS / The Dallas Morning News

Vidor, Texas, is infamous for driving away black residents. Considered a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, Vidor has excluded African-Americans to the point of violence. It gained national notoriety in 1992-’93 by foiling a court-ordered desegregation of public housing in East Texas. The nine black people, including five children, who moved there were driven out by protests and threats.

And you may well be living in a similar community and not know it.

According to a new study, whites-only discrimination has prevailed in thousands of areas across the country, North and South. While Vidor is an extreme example, the same principle of whites-only residency has been in effect in other communities, not through outright threats but through local laws, social pressures, police harassment and land buyouts.

These are places such as Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Darien, Conn.

All of Idaho.

And Highland Park in Texas.

Such towns may even be in the majority among incorporated areas in America, says James W. Loewen in Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New Press, $29.95). That means thousands of segregated places that Dr. Loewen calls sundown towns because of the sign that used to stand outside a number of the worst (in some cases, well into the 1990s). It warned blacks not to stay after dark. 

Washington (DC) Post
When Signs Said ‘Get Out’
In ‘Sundown Towns,’ Racism in the Rearview Mirror
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006; C01

Anthony Griffin remembers the signs. How could he forget them?

A black lawyer, he grew up in Baytown, Tex. Back in high school in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he would borrow his mom’s car and drive around East Texas, exploring. He saw the signs in a couple of towns.

“I was terrified,” he says. “You’re driving with your buddies and you say, ‘Thank God, it’s not dark. Let’s get the hell out.’ “

Debbie Schlussel (Comments)
I can understand you being uncomfortable with all of the racism being thrown in the viewers faces in “The Great Debaters” (just like I squirmed in my seat during the Julia Roberts/Black servant scene in Charlie Wilson’s War), but being from Texas, I can honestly tell you that East Texas was pretty bad for Black folks during that time period. Even until the 1980s, East Texas was home to several small cities known as “Sundown Towns” (meaning your Black ass better be out of that town by sundown). There’s an elderly Deaconess at my church who was actually a student at Wiley when Melvin Tolson was there and she vividly remembers the Klan coming on campus one night looking for him. Scary stuff.
Posted by: JibberJabber at December 22, 2007 11:29 PM

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (1) Comments • Sunday, December 23, 2007 • Permalink