The Sun is Setting on Sundown Towns
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in the 6–14–09 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL)
Many young Americans, both black and white, might be unfamiliar with the term “sundown town.” Many older Americans, however, know the term only all too well.
James W. Loewen, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, conducted a nationwide study to determine how many American communities barred African-Americans from establishing residences residences within their boundaries. He published his findings in a landmark 2005 work titled “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.”
Many communities openly flaunted their racism. Eyewitnesses told Loewen of more than 150 towns that blatantly displayed signs warning blacks nt to let the sun set on them within the city limits. Most read: “N****r, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In (name of town).” Other signs, devoid of lettering, displayed a painting of a black mule, which was understood to warn African-Americans to “get their black a**es” out of town before sundown.
Reprehensible, you’re probably thinking, but surely sundown towns were strictly a Southern phenomenon and didn’t exist in Missouri and Illinois. Well, think again.
No Missouri counties were without African-American residents in 1890. By 1930, however, the Show-Me State had 12 lily-white counties and 28 with fewer than 10 African-Americans. This racial cleansing was achieved largely through violence.
A mob in Monett, MO, in 1894 seized an African-American from jail and hanged him from a telephone pole. All African-Americans were then forced to flee the community. Pierce, MO, in 1901 also lynched an African-American, followed by the expulsion of its African-American residents. Springfield, MO, induced its African-American residents to leave by lynching three blacks on Easter of 1906. White residents of Ste. Genevieve in 1930 tried to lynch three African-Americans but were stopped by state troopers. The mob then directed its wrath toward all the community’s African-Americans and forced them to leave.
The case of Hermann is especially poignant in light of its history as a bastion of freedom. The community’s German population made Hermann the most staunchly anti-slavery town outside of St. Louis in a state that barely remained in the Union during the Civil War. Hermann was the scene of Emancipation Proclamation celebrations for a number of years, and African-Americans openly participated in these events. In the early 20th century, according to Art Draper of the Gasconade Historical Society, Hermann’s anti-racist fervor collapsed and Gasconade County slid into racial exclusion.
Illinois doesn’t fare any better. Southern Illinois communities such as Benton, Herrin and Jonesboro were sundown towns. Anna expelled its African-American population in 1909 after many of its white residents participated in the lynching of a black man in Cairo, some 30 miles away. For years Anna residents joked that their town’s name was an acronym for “Ain’t No N*****s Allowed.”
Loewen found that, with the exception of Peoria, every town along the Illinois River from its mouth to just outside the city of Chicago was a sundown town. Six Illinois counties by 1930 had no black residents, while 17 had less than 10. The sheriff of Mason County, north of Springfield, met African-Americans at the county line and told them not to enter. The 1940 census showed that no African-Americans lived in Calhoun County because, according to the Fair Employment Practices Commission, “Calhoun people see to it that no Negroes settle there.”
The Metro East had its share of sundown towns. Loewen deals with just two. Industrialist F.W. Owen told the Fair Employment Practices Commission during World War II that East Alton became a sundown town in 1895 when an African-American youth committed an unspecified crimes and was hunted by a mob of shotgun-toting whites. The youth remained uncaught, but community residents vowed that no African-American would set foot in East Alton. As late as 1960, the city had just four African-Americans. Loewen noted that East Alton “finally cracked in the 1990s” and lost its sundown status.
Granite City expelled its African-American residents in1903 and passed a legal ordinance forbidding them to live within the city limits. African-Americans who worked at its steel mills resided in neighboring towns. The 2000 census, however, showed that 622 African-Americans lived in Granite City. Driving around town, Loewen saw interracial groups of children walking home from school.
Sundown towns comprise a shameful chapter in American history. We can’t change the past, but we can shape the future by intensifying our effort to build a nation free of racism and discrimination of any kind.
John J. Dunphy is the author of “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois” and “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois.” His latest book, “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” will by published by McFarland in December.