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What Sundown Towns Represent For Black Drivers Today

The sun sets over a field outside of Anna, Illinois. "Sundown towns" like Anna were places where Black people were allowed in during the day to work or shop but had to be gone by nightfall. Today, some still exist in various forms, enforced now by tradition and fear rather than by rules. (Wong Maye-E/AP)
The sun sets over a field outside of Anna, Illinois. "Sundown towns" like Anna were places where Black people were allowed in during the day to work or shop but had to be gone by nightfall. Today, some still exist in various forms, enforced now by tradition and fear rather than by rules. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

Author Candacy Taylor spent all summer documenting Green Book sites and exploring how Black Americans can travel safely across the U.S in 2021.

Taylor’s latest book, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America,” examines the historical role and the impact of the Green Book — a travel guide printed from 1936 to 1967 to help Black Americans find safe places to stay, shop and eat on the road.

Taylor says during her travels she came across so-called “sundown towns” — all-white communities or neighborhoods that intentionally exclude Black people and other minorities through discriminatory systems.

“There were thousands of these sundown communities and most of them were predominant in the Midwest, in the West and in the North,” Taylor says. “So most people assume it was the South that was the problem, but that really wasn’t the case.”

The Green Book coincided with the second wave of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million Black people fleeing racial terror in the South headed North, she says. After 6 p.m., Black people faced the risk of harassment or at worst death.

“The sundown town was really a way that the North and West patrolled and monitored race without having the dirty signs of saying colored only or whites only,” she says. “[It’s] almost a covert operation because there would just be one sign at the county line saying ‘N-word, don’t let the sun set on you here’.”

A bell would ring to alert Black residents working in the sundown towns to go home and cross the border, Taylor says.

Travelers had no way of knowing where the sundown towns were located because there wasn’t a map until James Loewen researched and wrote the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” she says.

Loewen discovered that many of the sundown towns would burn the signs and that there’s no official record that some existed at all — which shows people continue to “erase the dirty parts of our history that we don’t want to remember,” Taylor says.

“Sundown towns are just like any other towns in America,” she says. “I have been to a couple that still seem to hold on to their racist heritage, and they have a large number of white supremacist groups.”

Many of these normal towns — like Harrison, Arkansas — still display confederate flags and “big, scary signs,” she says.

Research on sundown towns helps people understand the blatant racism that exists in our country, Taylor says. That’s why she’s interested in looking at how sundown towns operate.

While working on a digital interactive map with National Geographic, Taylor says she discovered there has been a small increase in Black and Brown people in sundown towns — even though they are still 90% white.

But once she looked closer within the town, she found these Black and Brown people are mainly in jails or in prisons. The advantage of this for towns is an increase in legislative power, she says.

“It’s kind of almost a prison gerrymandering that is happening,” Taylor says. “And that’s what I’m really fascinated with because that to me is again more covert operations that are very difficult to fight.”

There’s been a lot of attention on sundown towns because people have recently learned that these towns existed, Taylor says. People are discussing a history that has been forgotten or overlooked.

However, one of her concerns is that people are focusing so much on the troubled history of the sundown towns that people tend to forget that the whole country has a troubled history.

“I don’t want it to be conflated with the reality [that] there are serious policies that are very prevalent in progressive cities and states,” Taylor says, “that are equally destructive and debilitating to the growth and fairness and equality of Black people.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Camila Beiner adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.