With the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, the United States became a very different place for the people who were held in slavery. They were now legal citizens, could now be taught how to read, and were free to pursue their own destinies, however it was not going to be that easy. During the ten years of the Reconstruction period the former slaves made great gains socially, economically, and politically. With the protection of the Federal Government in the form of soldiers that were overseeing the Reconstruction process, African Americans were able to hold elected office, start businesses, and build schools. However, with the end of Reconstruction and the withdraw of the soldiers from Southern states, the former slaves and their children lost the support of the Federal Government. As power returned to the states and cities the defeated rebels would try everything they could to hold on the the old social order. Poll taxes and literacy tests would suppress the African-American vote. The Klu Klux Klan would rise to frighten and terrorize those who sought equality between the former slaves and their former masters. One of the main ways to control the African American population was to pass city ordinances preventing the ownership of property by “colored people”. These laws would lead to the creation of Sundown Towns.
A decent place to work, but you are not allowed to live there.
The term Sundown Town refers to a city or town that has legal ordinances that prevent minorities, usually African Americans, from owning property or renting a place to live within the city limits. They could come in an work there, but they had to be out by sundown, hence the name. The main goal of these laws was an attempt to keep the social order of the Antebellum South where separation of the races was a hard and fast rule. If they could no longer keep their African slaves at least they could keep the social order as best they could. The result being that the townsfolk would see the African Americans working at their menial jobs, but when they returned home they would not have to be bothered with the sight of them. Their children would not attend school or play in the same parks together.
A legacy of hypocrisy
In his autobiography, Malcolm X noticed how upper class white people would come to Harlem on Friday nights to dance to the bands made up of African American musicians. He would point out that these people enjoying the music would not give the musician the time of day if they crossed paths on the street. That same hypocrisy can be seen in the workings of a sundown town. The people will allow the African Americans to come in and cook their food and clean their houses, but have no interest in getting to actually know them on a personal level. The result of this separation has created a climate where racism will continue unabated. One of the best ways to combat racism is to get to know people who are different from you. If you never get a chance to interact with different people then stereotypes become more believable. The lasting legacy of these towns can still be felt today.
Sundown Towns today
Dr. James Loewen has compiled oral histories of Sundown towns. He details the work in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. He also maintains a website for those interested in contributing toward his project. He has compiled a list of towns in every state that have low percentages of African Americans. He has been criticized for his research methods, however, his project should not be totally dismissed. He makes a good point of identifying towns with skewed demographics, but he has a hard time proving the causes of those numbers. His contention that some of the numbers are by design, but some of the numbers are there due to other socio-economic reasons.
Further Readings and Resources