A drone shot looking down main street of a small town in the midwest during sunset.
Image Source: Josh Berendes / Unsplash

The Shameful History of Sundown Towns

Few things are as strongly associated with the ideas of freedom and the “American Dream” as the imagery of road trips on the open highway. The worry-free, smiling families cruising the wide-open highways of the United States are usually depicted as white since the open roads represent peril, not promise, for families of color (NYTimes). Beyond the legal segregation of the Jim Crow South, the United States is full of municipalities that were known not long ago as “sundown towns.” These communities are ongoing reminders of a shameful history of racial terrorism—and the closest example is likely nearer to you than you might think. 

Though Black Americans were aware of the dangers of traveling by car, there was — and still is — a strong sense of freedom and control that automobile travel offered that trains and buses did not (NYTimes). While traveling by buses and trains in Jim Crow America, Black Americans were often subjected to a conductor’s watchful eye. They would have to defer to white passengers even when seated in the “Colored Car.” This kind of harassment was relentless and what made the construction of a new highway appealing.

TAKE ACTION

Use this map to find historic sundown towns by yous.

• Support the GoFundMe campaign of two Black women aiming to make travel safer for Black travelers through a modern-day digital green book. You can also contribute spaces and businesses to the Inclusive Guide.

• Consider: How does your community welcome people of color? How might it dissuade visitors and new residents? If you live in a predominantly white community, ask why Black and Brown people are absent.

Route 66, “The Mother Road,” one of the most famous U.S. highways, started in Chicago and ran through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Gaining popularity during the 1930s as people tried to escape the Dust Bowl, Black Americans also used Route 66 to flee racial violence in the Jim Crow South. Unbeknownst to them, there was no escaping Jim Crow as institutionalized racism is embedded in every part of the country. A year before Route 66 construction began, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial warning Black Americans away from recreational facilities like swimming pools:

“We should be doing no service to the Negroes if we did not point out that to a very large section of the white population the presence of a Negro, however well behaved, among white bathers is an irritation. This may be a regrettable fact to the Negroes, but it is nevertheless a fact, and must be reckoned with … [T]he Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relationship by remaining away from beaches where their presence is resented.”

–  Chicago Tribune editorial, published on August 29, 1925, via The Atlantic.


Because Route 66 covered over 2,000 miles, various businesses like restaurants, barbershops, gas stations, and motels were along the route, making it possible for travelers to stop for a night’s rest and food – except for Black travelers. Of the eight states along the highway, six had official segregation laws, but all had unofficial rules about race (The Atlantic).

Victor Hugo Green, a Harlem postal worker, created The Negro Motorist Green Book. This travel guide listed motels, taverns, guesthouses, barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants, realtors, and department stores that were safe for Black Americans to patronize without harm. The book included listings for all parts of the country, but Route 66 was the most famous highway. Published from 1936-1966, the Green Book was considered the Bible of Black travel because it prevented the shame of being kicked out of restaurants and listed unsafe designations, like sundown towns (Smithsonian Magazine).

Sundown towns were white-only communities where people of color, specifically Black people, were not allowed to stay past sundown. Mainly created to prevent an influx of Black, Chinese, and Jewish people into white communities from 1890 to 1940, sundown towns were, and still are, symbols of violence (GEN). Black travelers often passed signs that read “Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Understand?” and “Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark.” There were an estimated 10,000 towns like these in 1970 (Tolerance.org).

A common practice among Black men with nice cars was to lie to police officers when asked if the vehicle they were driving was theirs. White vigilantes and police officers found it offensive if a Black man owned a fancier car or if they misinterpreted that he was trying to upstage them. To protect their family from violence, Black men often kept a chauffeur hat in the car as a decoy to avoid trouble if they got stopped (The Atlantic).

The HBO series Lovecraft Country illustrates the psychological warfare Black Americans endured daily under America’s unique form of racism. From psychological violence by police officers, racist signage, and refusal of service, the show captures how mortifying, debilitating, and dehumanizing segregation, sundown towns, and Jim Crow were, and still are, today. And the importance of a green book or Black traveler guide is evident when we think about the hunting and murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

It’s easy to brush off the racial history of sundown towns as just an injustice of the past. However, we should remember that Black men are still being lynched in America, and the byproducts of these racial expulsions and cleansing can be seen in predominately-white neighborhoods and policing. 

In 2017, NAACP issued a travel advisory for Missouri urging visitors and residents “to travel with extreme CAUTION “because “race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri” (NAACP). The advisory cited the deaths of Black men by law enforcement and how Black people in the state are 75% more likely than white people to be stopped for traffic violations as reasoning. And every night, a former sundown town in Nevada still sounds the red siren once used to alert Native Americans and non-white people to leave the town before nightfall, despite requests by tribal members in the community to stop (Denver Post). 

We are far from a post-racial society. With racial injustices in full view, Black travelers are creating the necessary resources to keep other Black people safe domestically and internationally (Travel + Leisure). Former sundown towns continue to have overwhelming white demographics and often exhibit de facto racial exclusion. And politicians from both parties appealed to white supremacist ideas in the midterms by announcing their intention to “fund the police” in the face of a fictitious crime wave (The Appeal). We can’t understand the society we live in, much less improve it for the benefit of us all, if we don’t understand how prejudice and state-sponsored violence have formed the map of our country.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• White-only sundown towns were dangerous for Black travelers.

• People of color were removed through violence and intimidation. 

• Police were and still are used to “protect” white spaces and communities from minorities. 

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