Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sundown Town

I live in a sundown town.

I'll admit, I'd never heard that term until college. But it's stuck with me since Todd attended a talk by author James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism at Lake Land  Community College a few months ago.

Image taken from
The gist is that though northern states were not as overt in racial segregation as the southern states, there were still places that, if you were black, you were not welcome. Some towns posted signs to the effect of "Don't let the sun set on you here", meaning those "unwanted" folks had better clear out before dark, or else. The spread of this rule relied heavily on oral tradition, though some towns have official ordinances on their books. Consequences included threats of physical violence, damage to property, and/or police action to those in noncompliance.

I read that the sundown town sign in Neoga was up until the past decade or so, when it was removed to accommodate a public works project but was not replaced after the work was completed. I recently heard a story retold by a church member about a former pastor bringing home a black friend from seminary in the 1950s and the pastor's experience of having to explain to his guest why he had to stay inside his host's home after dark. As a point of fact, there are not many African-American residents in Neoga or surrounding towns to this day.

The fact that a sign like of that nature could exist for so long in a majority Christian town proves how insidious racism can be--it's there without even realizing it.

This election season, I hear a lot of people yearning to return to the "good old days". I'm not sure what that even means. Americans have a poor collective memory, cycling through every 4 years or so when election time rolls around. This clip from NPR helps illustrate my point: life was most certainly not better for most people 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago in regards to issues like wages, health, and labor laws. I'm confronted with the idea that people want to turn back the clock on the progress we've made, though small, on race and gender relations in the past years in favor of a time when things were somehow in their minds better or simpler.

Are we living with a modern-day sundown town mindset? Instead of engaging with those different from us, do we build walls and legislate rules to keep others out? Do we do this in the name of simplicity? Or even worse, religion?

To find out if your town is a sundown town, click here.


  1. Oh my word. I have never heard this term before. And how sad that my town is among the many, many Illinois towns listed.

    1. I went through every town in IL and MI that I ever lived or worked in. Found this info about a town I taught in (Grosse Pointe) in MI:
      I went to Holy Name School in Birmingham--it's mentioned in the comments. Crazy connections.


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