Think Sundown Towns Are a Thing of the Past? Think Again

Driving around the country researching my family’s Great Migration history, I realized how many places were still unsafe for Black people after dark

This past June, 24-year-old Robert Fuller was found hanging from a tree in Palmdale, California. Though the LAPD ruled Fuller’s death as a suicide due to there not being any signs of struggle and Fuller having a history of mental illness, Black communities across the nation have been skeptical of the investigation. Why would a Black man hang himself in an open space, a tragedy that would make anyone with an understanding of racial terrorism in this country conjure images of lynching?

But what distinguishes this story in our present day context is not only its timing, during some of the greatest protests against police brutality the world has ever seen, but also its location. This hanging did not happen in the deep south or the rural midwest but in Los Angeles County.

Antelope Valley, where Palmdale is located, was recently described by one longtime resident as “The Confederacy of Southern California.” One might be fooled into believing California’s year-round sun, palm trees, and pristine beaches provide a buffer against racism in other places. It doesn’t.

I discovered this while doing field research for my forthcoming book, Wandering In Strange Lands. I am a descendant of some of the millions of Black Americans who fled the South during the early to mid-twentieth century because of rampant, racialized violence. In my research, I sought to unpack how much we’ve lost in our displacement over the decades.

I had just finished a weeklong stint of research in Oklahoma, where I seldom stayed out past sunset. Black and Indigenous locals had overwhelmed me with stories about sundown towns, places where disappearances and lynchings were not uncommon endings for BIPOC after dark. I assumed that in California, I’d get a bit of respite. But in the Will Rogers Airport of Oklahoma City, I got a call from one of the people I was on my way to see, a Los Angeles-based woman named Rachelle who had witnessed both the 1965 and 1992 riots. She told me there are only two regions in America: Up South and Down South. Black people had fled to Los Angeles during the Great Migration only to be confronted with the same dynamics they thought they were escaping, just in a new area code.

Rachelle’s family’s first home in a well-to-do suburb in Los Angeles was set on fire in 1945. As a kid, white people would frequently hose her. She named other sundown towns she’d grown up around: Culver City, Glendale, South Pasadena. These were all cities that I, as a child, thought were paradise. I realized sundown towns are much more widespread than I thought.

According to Heather A. O’Connell in her 2019 paper “Historical Shadows: The Links between Sundown Towns and Contemporary Black-White Inequality,” “Sundown towns are a key, yet often invisible, piece of our history that reshaped dramatically the social and demographic landscape of the United States.” She argues sundown towns are “(primarily) a thing of the past,” and while this may have been true back when her paper was published last year, with the rise of hangings of Black men across the nation this summer, I’m not so sure anymore.

Sundown towns may be an invisible piece of American history to some, but in my own experience, Black people have always admonished each other about where to go, when to stay, and when to leave. My relatives from Ohio to the Northeast have always discussed the danger of traveling to different locales, whether with deep sincerity or in the form of a joke. These stories stem from a long-standing tradition of protecting one another, like the publication of The Negro Motorist Green Book from the 1930s to 1960s, which steered Black travelers to safe hotels, guest houses, restaurants, and gas stations where we’d have the best chances of staying alive.

The fear of an influx of Black people — as well as Asians and Jews — in predominantly white communities is what gave rise to sundown towns. In the 1890s, sundown towns were already beginning to proliferate across the rural Midwest, and perhaps these earliest iterations are why those like myself immediately think of this region as the hub for these restrictive places. But starting in 1915, when Black Southerners began to migrate to the North in droves, sundown towns began to pop up there as well. Some of the tactics white people would use, as O’Connell points out in her paper, included acts of “physical intimidation,” such as the burning of minority homes or the burning of crosses.

Black people have always admonished each other about where to go, when to stay, and when to leave.

This information gave me a pause, because if this were the case, then arguably, my mother and her siblings grew up in a sundown town, too. As I interviewed family members for my book, my mother told me that while growing up in Pomona, a suburb outside Atlantic City, her family was the second Black family on the block, and the local Ku Klux Klan would burn crosses in their backyard. This was in the early 1970s, after the Great Migration had officially ended. Was Pomona a sundown town right there in otherwise quaint Southern New Jersey?

So I kept digging. Arguably one of the most comprehensive books on the subject is James Loewen’s 2005 Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. He maintains a database of potential sundown towns to this day. Pomona isn’t on there, but Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where my father used to live, is. Hershey Park, where I went as a kid, is on it, too. Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where I stopped for lunch with a Black Creek man, is on there. Sapulpa — which I drove through unaccompanied to get to Tulsa — is there. And in California, there are too many to name.

I wonder about the potential realities that could’ve happened to me if I would’ve stayed in any of these cities longer than white people would’ve liked, if I would’ve made the wrong turn, or stopped at the wrong facility. What would’ve happened?

Sundown towns have never gone away. As long as Black people have stories of what has happened to them or others for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as long as white people terrorize Black people who move into their neighborhoods, or create laws to restrict them from living there in the first place, sundown towns will always be a part of the fabric of American culture.

And sometimes, white people do not need the cloak of the night to shield their atrocities. We’ve seen this in a viral video from 1975 of white kids harassing Black kids in Rosedale, New York, or in ProPublica’s 2019 report from Anna, Illinois — which one local told the reporter stands for “…Ain’t No Niggers Allowed.” I’m reminded of Ahmaud Arbery who, while running for exercise, was hunted down and killed by white men in Brunswick, Georgia — another place where I did fieldwork for my book. So long as Black people are seen as a threat when we move around, white people are hellbent to maintain their homogenous towns by any means necessary. For many Black Americans, the difference in freeway exits or a redirection of routes can be a matter of life and death.

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.

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