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James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

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Works that Mention Sundown Towns

Before the publication of Sundown Towns, the idea that many towns barred African Americans (and sometimes other groups) was not widely known. The notion was treated to some degree in books by four nonfiction authors: Frank Quillen, Ray Stannard Baker, Jacque Voegeli, and Emma Lou Thornbrough, cited in Sundown Towns. In addition, an unpublished work, Black Hillbillies of the Arkansas Ozarks by Gordon D. Morgan (Fayetteville: U of AR Dept. of Sociology, 1973 typescript), treats Sundown Towns there. David Gerber, Black Ohio and the Color Line (Urbana: U of IL P, 1976), mentions that some towns were sundown but locates them in the southern part of the state, the “Virginia Military District,” and says they persisted into the twentieth century. Actually they were all over Ohio, and many started during the twentieth century. But at least he mentions them.

Michael D’Orso’s Like Judgment Day (New York: Putnam’s, 1996), treats the riot that drove African Americans from Rosewood, Florida, leaving the area all-white, including Cedar Key, a sundown town, and does mention Cedar Key. John Gehm, Bringing it Home (Chicago: Chicago Review P, 1984), tells how he and others brought the first African American family to Valparaiso, Indiana, in about 1970. Joseph Lyford’s 1962 book, The Talk in Vandalia (Santa Barbara: Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1962), does mention that African Americans were not allowed in that southern Illinois community, but given that his work was a report for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, his treatment of their exclusion seems curiously understated. Orvie, a biography of Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard by David Good, treats his sundown policies at length(Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989). There are also a handful of books — fewer than ten — on four race riots that tried to create Sundown Towns but failed, in Springfield, Missouri; Springfield, Illinois; East St. Louis, Illinois; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Patrick Huber gave a terrific talk, “Race Riots and Black Exodus in the Missouri Ozarks, 1894-1905” (Harrison, AR: Ozark Cultural Celebration, 9/2002).

After Sundown Towns came out, three additional books came out that treat the topic: Elliot Jaspin, Buried in the Bitter Waters; Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out, about California towns that expelled their Chinese Americans; and Jack Blocker Jr., A Little More Freedom, on black migration paths. Marco Williams also released an effective video, Banished, on the topic, but unfortunately, like Jaspin’s book, he emphasizes that Sundown Towns are a Southern phenomenon. Actually, they are much more prevalent in the North.

Fiction writers have done better. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the black poet, wrote a novel, The Fanatics, in 1901, just as towns were going sundown across the North and West. It tells of the expulsion of blacks by whites in “Dorbury,” Ohio, in about 1862. The town did not quite go sundown: “Some ran away, only to return when the storm had passed; others, terrified by the horror of the night, went, never to return, and their homes are occupied in Dorbury today by the men who drove them from them” (NY: Dodd Mead, 1901, 159). Laura Hobson’s 1947 novel, Gentleman’s Agreement, treated the unwritten covenant in Darien, Connecticut, that prohibited real estate sales to Jews (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1947). Lee Martin’s 2001 novel Quakertown tells how the banker and other white residents of Denton, Texas, expelled the African American residents from a neighborhood in 1921, moving them and their houses three miles east, except for one gardener (NY: Dutton, 2001). Kurt Vonnegut sets a scene in a sundown town in Breakfast of Champions and includes a self-drawn illustration of a sundown sign. Clifford D. Simak’s science fiction novel, Time is the Simplest Thing (NY: Macmillan Collier, 1994 [1961]), depicts “parries,” humans who have been partly captured by extraterrestrial beings; a character says (page 48), “They have signs in some towns (a billboard with the words: PARRY, DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU HERE).”

William Burroughs mentions a “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down” sign in his novel, Naked Lunch, but makes the common error of locating it in the South (NY: Grove, 1962 [1958], 39-40). Fiction writers for young readers have done better yet. Sudie, a novel for teenagers by Sara Flanigan (NY: St. Martin’s, 1986), also puts its sundown town in the South, but, Sudie is a searing novel about what happens to whites in such towns and is based on an actual community in north Georgia, which does have at least six sundown counties. Caroline Cooney’s Burning Up describes a girl’s gradual discovery that her family acquiesced when whites in her Connecticut town burned out the town’s only African American, a teacher (NY: Delacorte, 1999). Another novel for teenagers, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (NY: Delacorte, 1999), has a scene with a young African American hitchhiker stranded at the sundown sign at the city limits of Owosso, Michigan. (Owosso may never have had a sign but was a sundown town for many decades.) Barbara Elliott Carpenter included a sundown incident from Arcola, Illinois, in Starlight, Starbright…, a novel she wrote for teenagers (Bloomington, IL: 1stBooks, 2003). Chris Crutcher’s Angry Management ties together three novellas, the third of which takes place in a sundown town (NY: HarperCollins, 2009).