Racial Tensions in America’s ‘Sundown Towns’

The moon shines through clouds along a highway in New Columbia, Ill., near Vienna, Ill., on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. “Sundown towns” like Vienna 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. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

VIENNA, Ill. (AP) — Ask around this time-battered Midwestern town, with its empty storefronts, dusty antique shops and businesses that have migrated toward the interstate, and nearly everyone will tell you that Black and white residents get along really well.

“Race isn’t a big problem around here,” said Bill Stevens, a white retired prison guard with a gentle smile, drinking beer with friends on a summer afternoon. “Never has been, really.”

“We don’t have any trouble with racism,” said a twice-widowed woman, also white, with a meticulously-kept yard and a white picket fence.

But in Vienna, as in hundreds of mostly white towns with similar histories across America, much is left unspoken. Around here, almost no one talks openly about the violence that drove out Black residents nearly 70 years ago, or even whispers the name these places were given: “sundown towns.”

Unless they’re among the handful of Black residents.

“It’s real strange and weird out here sometimes,” said Nicholas Lewis, a stay-at-home father. “Every time I walk around, eyes are on me.”

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The rules of a sundown town were simple: 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.

These towns were an open secret of racial segregation that spilled over much of the nation for at least a century, and still exist in various forms, enforced today more by tradition and fear than by rules.

Across America, some of these towns are now openly wrestling with their histories, publicly acknowledging now-abandoned racist laws or holding racial justice protests. Some old sundown towns are now integrated. But many also still have tiny Black communities living alongside residents who don’t bother hiding their cold stares of disapproval.

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This story was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Mailboxes line a street in Jonesboro, Ill., on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Mailboxes line a street in Jonesboro, Ill., on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

This part of southern Illinois had at least a half-dozen sundown towns. We came here on the second stop of The Associated Press’ road trip across America, a reporting journey that three of us are taking to look at how the U.S. has been shaken and shaped by months of protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis and the looming November elections.

We wanted to take a close look at systemic racism, trying to understand how something that is so crushingly obvious to some people can be utterly invisible to others.

So we went to a longtime sundown town.

They were called “grey towns,” in some parts of America, “sunset towns” in others. The terms were used by both Black and white people.

Very often, especially in well-to-do suburbs that didn’t want to be known as racist, they had no name at all. But they still kept out Black residents. There were hundreds of such towns, scholars say, reaching from New York to Oregon. Perhaps thousands.

James Loewen, a historian who spent years studying sundown towns, found them in the suburbs of Detroit, New York City and Chicago. He found them outside Los Angeles, in midwestern farming villages and in New England summer towns.

Dusk settles over Anna, Ill. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Dusk settles over Anna, Ill. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Sometimes, the rules were official policies, with signs at the edge of towns warning Black people to be gone by nightfall. More often, everyone – both Black and white – simply knew the unwritten rules.

In this area, near the borders of both Missouri and Kentucky, young Black people were raised to be aware of which towns they should avoid.

“It was something that was known,” said James Davis, 27, a Black truck driver from the nearby town of Cairo, which is largely Black. “But also something that our parents taught us growing up.”

In places still seen as sundown towns, many Black people now follow their own rules: Avoid them if possible, and lock your car doors if you have to drive through. If you stop for gas, look for a well-lit gas station with security cameras.

So it is in Vienna.

“Every time you come into town, or you go into a gas station, or in a store, people look at you,” said Victoria Vaughn, a biracial 17-year-old who has been coming to Vienna for years to visit her white grandparents.

“You can feel them looking at you, feel them staring,” she said. “I’ve never had anybody say anything (racist) to me in Vienna, but I’ve definitely felt the way they felt about me.”

She was in Vienna on a recent Saturday to join a rally organized after a group of Vienna High School students created a social media account that included the phrase “hate Black people” in its title. Vaughn and her grandmother were among the 50 or so people who turned out for the rally, along with about 25 counter-protesters.

At first things went well. Protesters and counter-protesters prayed together. They talked calmly about race. But not for long.

“Bullshit!” an older white man shouted at Vaughn, after she said Black people aren’t treated equally. “They get the same as the white people get!”

Vaughn, whose grandmother gently pulled her back from the confrontation with the angry older man, isn’t surprised that Vienna’s white residents don’t see racial issues around them. The situation is far more subtle today than when Black residents were forced out.

“Until you live in a Black or brown person’s body you’re not going to understand,” she said. “You have to know somebody who lived it, or live it yourself, to truly understand.”

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Today it’s just an overgrown field, vibrant green from recent rains.

But 60 years ago, there was a small collection of houses along that stretch of 7th Street, where the outer edges of Vienna bump up against Little Cache Creek. Everyone who lived there was Black.

A “Dead End” sign is posted on the far end of 7th Street in Vienna, Ill. There was a small collection of houses along 7th Street, near where the outer edges of Vienna bumps up against Little Cache Creek. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The violence erupted in August, 1954, after the arrest of a 31-year-old resident, Thomas Lee Latham, who was accused of brutally beating an elderly white woman with a soft drink bottle and trying to rape her granddaughter.

“Vienna Negro Held on Charge of Assault With Attempt to Murder,” the Vienna Times declared on its front page after Latham was arrested, hours after the attack. The older woman died days later.

A few weeks after his arrest, Latham escaped from jail. Dozens of armed men took to the streets of Vienna and the surrounding fields, backed up by bloodhounds and spotters in low-flying planes.

Within hours, the cluster of Black homes along 7th Street were ablaze, with smoke and flames rising above the town.

A week or so later Latham gave himself up and pleaded guilty. One day after he surrendered, he was sentenced to 180 years in prison.

By then, the town’s Black residents were gone.

“The Black community, from that point on, disappeared from Vienna,” said Darrel Dexter, a historian and high school teacher who has studied the violence of 1954.

Black people had lived in and around Vienna since the late 1820s or early 1830s, said Dexter. But he estimates that after the fires, perhaps 50 people fled the town. The town later repaid Black residents for their lost homes, the Times reported, though there is no indication anyone was ever prosecuted.

The 1950 census showed 54 Black people living in Vienna.

In 2000, it showed one.

Source: Associated Press