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DRIVING SCARED – Is your Town a Sundown Town?

July 25, 2022
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I was expecting the flashing light and siren behind me as soon as I passed the police car. I had an anxious feeling that he would be coming after me. I was passing through a small town in Ohio, a state I have lived my entire life, and I did not see a lot of people that looked like me or had my skin color. Never mind that it was 2019, I was doing nothing wrong, my license was up to date, I was carrying car insurance, and driving a vehicle that was well taken care of.

 There are still some places that are not too friendly to people of color when they are caught driving there after a certain hour.

There are still some places that are not too friendly to people of color when they are caught driving there after a certain hour. My husband was sitting next to me, and we had determined he would just remain silent since he has a heavy Caribbean accent. We did not want to do or say anything that might be interpreted as escalating an already tense situation. We did not want to make the police officer feel like we were a threat. Incidences of fatal encounters between Black drivers and police were constantly in the news. A mere traffic stop had the risk of escalating into a fatal situation, so I did all I could to remain calm and be prepared to obey instructions, but I was so scared. Not because of anything I had done, but it would be his word against mine and I wasn’t sure why I was being stopped. I had not been speeding, there was no tail light out, and I had not been swerving. So I had no idea why the police were suddenly following behind me with sirens on. I stopped and kept my hands on the steering wheel in full view.  

The officer approached the car with one hand on his side where I could see a gun, and asked where I was going. I told him I was passing through. He asked where I was coming from. I politely explained. He then asked if I was lost. I wasn’t, in fact I was using my GPS. Finally, he politely pointed to a street and informed me that using that route would get me on my way quicker. Yes sir I said and thank you. I got the hint. Staying within the speed limit, I took the quickest route out of there. I watched him follow behind my car slowly in the rearview mirror. When I reached the outskirts of the town and he could see we were on our way, he turned and went in another direction.  

Whew! Later I researched the town and discovered it had been listed as one of Ohio’s “sundown” towns.[1] I found out after having one too many “routine traffic stops” while traveling through some of these beautiful, scenic towns that they have a hidden past.[2]

 A sundown town is a community that for decades kept non-whites from living in it and was thus ’all-white‘ on purpose.

I had never heard of a sundown town and did not know they existed. But, they still do. James W. Loewen, bestselling author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, exposes the chilling history of these towns that sprung up to keep out African Americans and non-whites in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of White Racism. [3] A sundown town is a community that for decades kept non-whites from living in it and was thus ’all-white‘ on purpose. Some allowed a non-white household or two as an exception.“[4] The history of sundown towns is described as being “hidden in plain sight.” Many people may assume these towns are in the south, but they are all over the United States.[5] Despite this, most of what is known today about the topic is through the research of sociology professor James W. Loewen. The rules of a sundown town, though unofficial, are clear: “Black people were allowed to pass through during the day or go in to shop or work, but they had to be gone by nightfall. Anyone breaking the rules could risk arrest, a beating or worse.”[6]  

Growing up in the early 1970’s, I remember a visit to my grandparents’ home in Chagrin Falls Park. This particular evening, my grandfather was driving speedily up the road and did not stop until he reached home. He and my aunt got out of the truck scared. He showed me a bullet hole where the truck had been fired upon. My grandfather said a Klan member told him he was out “past his time,” fired on them and chased them back into the area. It was late afternoon and he had been trying to get to the grocery store in the town before curfew. Black people weren’t allowed to shop past a certain time. Restricting the movements of Black people on the basis of skin color was a public health crisis then, just as the effects of racism are today. Would they be allowed to go to a hospital in time of emergency? Could they drive through a sundown town if they ran out of food or gas after curfew?

 Restricting the movements of Black people on the basis of skin color was a public health crisis then, just as the effects of racism are today.

The “Green Book”, first published in 1936 was created by Victor Hugo Green, a Harlem-based postal carrier who saw the real risk of blacks who might veer off accidentally into an unknown and unwelcome territory. The 1948 edition saw this hopeful introduction: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”[7]  

The Green Book was a guide to help Black Americans travel without fear, listing hotels and restaurants and other useful information so Black travelers could be informed of risks to avoid. Even in cities with no black-friendly hotels, it offered information on private residences where travelers could stay and was sold at Esso gas stations.[8] One traveler, Earl Hutchinson Sr., described purchasing a copy in preparation for a road trip he and his wife took from Chicago to California. “The ‘Green Book’ was the bible of every Negro highway traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s,” he wrote. “You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.”[9]  

Black Americans in the 21st century need to be aware that sundown towns are still a reality. Research revealed at least 60 of Kentucky’s 762 towns are sundown towns. I traveled to Kentucky recently, but I’m happy to report there were no incidents. “In his groundbreaking book, James Loewen said, “the biggest mistake that Black travelers can make is assuming that their sole issues exist in the American South, or that the concept of a sundown town is a relic of the past.”[10] Sundown towns are not a relic of the past. As I researched the history, I found the impact of sundown towns had far reaching results thanks to gerrymandering and redlining. Many rural and suburban communities were originally developed to be all-white. This resulted in blacks moving to urban areas or “urban ghettos” because blacks were banned from living or traveling in certain areas. [11] In 2021, when many of us were following the Ahmaud Arbery case, it brought a reminder to many that even jogging in certain areas can pose a risk, even during the day.  

A news release dated February 16, 2022, announced that the City of South Pasadena California had passed Sundown Town Resolution 7750 condemning the city’s history as a Sundown Town and of Institutionalized Racism. [12] The Resolution will be posted online and on social media.[13]  Goshen City, Indiana was one of the earliest cities to unanimously approve a resolution confronting its racist past in 2015.[14]

 Few cities have dealt with their racist pasts, and we can’t fix what we won’t admit is broken.

Few cities have dealt with their racist pasts, and we can’t fix what we won’t admit is broken. Each sundown town has to search its own soul and reckon with a past that still threatens the lives of non-white individuals. We’re not able to change the hearts and minds of all people, but we can develop and improve policies that protect the rights of all Americans to drive anywhere, and jog anywhere safely, regardless of the time of day or their skin color.  

[1] Sundown Towns by State - History and Social Justice (tougaloo.edu)  

[2] Sundown Towns by State - History and Social Justice (tougaloo.edu)  

[3] Sundown Towns: Racial Segregation Past and Present - America's Black Holocaust Museum (abhmuseum.org)  

[4] Sundown Towns: Racial Segregation Past and Present - America's Black Holocaust Museum (abhmuseum.org)  

[5] Sundown Towns by State - History and Social Justice (tougaloo.edu)  

[6] AP Road Trip: Racial tensions in America's 'sundown towns' | AP News  

[7] The Green Book: The Black Travelers’ Guide to Jim Crow America - HISTORY  

[8] Green Book, in detail: Learn about guide that helped Black travelers (usatoday.com)  

[9] The Green Book: The Black Travelers’ Guide to Jim Crow America - HISTORY  

[10] Yes, Sundown Towns Are Still A Problem For Black Travelers In The United States - Travel Noire  

[11] Before Ahmaud Arbery, sundown towns banned and threatened Black people - The Washington Post  

[12] Goshen City Council approves resolution acknowledging 'sundown town' past | News | goshennews.com  

[13] 637805957085730000 (southpasadenaca.gov)  

[14] Goshen City Council approves resolution acknowledging 'sundown town' past | News | goshennews.com

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