A sundown town is a town that is or was purposely all-white. The term is widely used in the United States in areas from Ohio to Oregon and well into the South. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns”.
In some cases, signs were placed at the town's borders with statements similar to the one posted in Hawthorne, California, which read "N_____, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne" in the 1930's.
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 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 there were in the United States, the largest attempt made to determine how common they were estimated that there were several thousand throughout the nation. The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns were in the state of Illinois difficult to accurately determine 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 1950's and 1960's, 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, notes that hundreds of cities across America have been sundown towns at some point in their history.
Loewen's book mentions that sundown status meant more than just African-Americans not being able to live in these towns. Essentially any African-Americans (or sometimes other groups) who came into sundown towns after sundown were subject to harassment, threats, and violent acts—up to and including lynching.
Other Minorities Targeted
In addition to the expulsion of African Americans from some small towns, Chinese Americans and other minorities were also driven out of some of the towns where they lived. One example according to Loewen is that in 1870, Chinese made up one-third of the population of Idaho. Following a wave of violence and an 1886 anti-Chinese convention in Boise, almost none remained by 1910. The town of Gardnerville, Nevada, is said to have blown a whistle at 6 p.m. daily alerting Native Americans to leave by sundown. In addition, Jews were excluded from living in some sundown towns, such as Darien, Connecticut.
Books That Refer to Sundown Towns
James W. Loewen's book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism describes the phenomenon. Several other books also demonstrate the existence of sundown towns. Sundown towns are mentioned in Following the Color Line, by Ray Stannard Baker; Free But Not Equal, by V. Jacque Voegeli; Black Ohio and the Color Line, by David Gerber; The Negro in Indiana, by Emma Thornbrough; Mobile Americans: Residential and Social Mobility in Omaha, by Howard Chudacoff; Race and Kinship in a Midwestern Town, by James DeVries; Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis; The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot by Roberta Senechal. Visual treatments include the Robby Heason documentary Trouble Behind (Cicada Films, 1990), and the Marco Williams documentary Banished (banishedthefilm.com/, 2007).
An arc by Justice League of America writer Dwayne McDuffie was titled Welcome to Sundown Town. It referred to the return of the multi-ethnic Milestone Comics universe and its crossover into the less diverse DC Comics universe.