Sundown Towns: a History of Hate and Hurt

Studying our history is important, not only because it helps us from repeating the mistakes of the past, but also because it allows us to better understand the lasting impact of past injustices on its victims. Recently I began researching the phenomenon of Sundown Towns in the US and would like to share some of what I learned with you.

Beginning in the Reconstruction Era (1865 and the legal end of slavery) and well into the 1930’s many thousands of towns across the US became “Sundown Towns”.  Sundown Towns were all-white towns that either did not allow or actively discouraged the presence of non-whites, especially Blacks. Any Black (and sometimes Jews, Chinese, Mexican or Native Indian) who entered or were found in towns after sunset were subject to harassment, threats, and violent acts including beatings and even lynching.  In fact, the name “Sundown Town” came from signs posted at their city limits reading, typically, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___.”   Bitterness from the Civil War and the concurrent formation of the Ku Klux Klan made Blacks the main focus of this hateful ostracizing.

Black families that lived through this kind of frightening and degrading segregation may still carry the scars and hurt with them today. The ramifications for their future were severe and the trauma and fear such towns held for blacks were passed down through generations. I believe it’s one of the silent “unspoken” histories that impedes our racial understanding of each other today.

Lasting effects from our legacy of Sundown Towns has held back the racial healing of this country, especially in Missouri and Sedalia where divide and bitterness over the Civil War were strongly felt. If you don’t get to know someone (more easily done by living near them) and your memories of that person’s race or character are so limited or negative, chances are you will not feel comfortable with them, especially if their skin is a different color than yours.

Recently, a Black male visitor to the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library  in Sedalia, shared some chilling family history with me.  His great grandfather had been lynched in Harrison, Arkansas.  His mother, still traumatized by the family history, can’t bring herself to drive through the town even today. This led me to do some research into the town of Harrison which indeed turned out to have a long history as a Sundown Town and home to many white supremacy organizations and hate groups.

Harrison had been a reasonably peaceful inter-racial town in the early 1890’s.  The town had its “colored” section with their own church and local whites attended “colored” barbecues / fundraisers to help build a school in the “colored” section of town. (The Federal Government gave whites money to build their schools – but none to blacks).

Then throughout Arkansas as elsewhere, race relations worsened around the turn of the century.  Democrat Jeff Davis (no relation to the president of the Confederacy) successfully ran for governor in 1900, 1902 and 1904 and then for U.S. Senate in 1906. His language grew more “Negro-phobique” with each campaign. “We have come to a parting of the way with the Negro” he shouted. “If the brutal criminals of that race . . . lay unholy hands upon our fair daughters, nature is so riven and shocked that the dire compact produces a social cataclysm.”

During this time, Harrison lost its bid for a railroad to connect it to Eureka Springs and ultimately St. Louis and the world. This had a major negative economic impact on the town and put unemployed railroad tracklayers, some of them blacks, on the streets of Harrison eventually leading to a catastrophic event in Harrison’s history.

The following is an excerpt from Dr. James W. Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. (October 2006).

“On a Saturday night, September 30, 1905, a black man, identified only as Dan, reportedly seeking shelter from the cold was arrested for breaking into the Harrison residence of Dr. John J. Johnson and was jailed with another African-American prisoner called “Rabbit”.

Two days later, whites in Harrison took Davis’s campaign rhetoric seriously to heart.

“A white mob stormed the building and took these two Negroes from jail along with several others.- To the country where they were whipped and ordered to leave. The rioters swept through Harrison’s black neighborhood with terrible intent. The mob of 20 or 30 men, armed with clubs and guns, reportedly tied men to trees and whipped them, tied men and women together and threw them in a 4 foot hole in Crooked Creek, burned several houses and warned all Negroes to leave town that night, which most of them did without taking any of their belongings.”

“From house to house in the colored section they went, recalled the Harrison City Librarian. Sometimes threatening, sometimes using the lash, always issuing the order that hereafter, “no Nigger had better let the Sun go down on ‘em in Harrison, Arkansas.”

Can you even image having had this happen to someone in your family?  How would this personal history affect you? Trying somehow to absorb that mass cruelty and gross inhumanity, where do we go from here?  Only up. We must try to understand the horror and injustices Blacks have endured. Though some can say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – others have understandably become bitter and disillusioned.

We can each help though. Help by learning more about the true history of Blacks. Not what most history books in schools present – but the ugly truth of what really happened so that we can try to grasp and understand what it was like to be Black in the U.S. and Missouri and Sedalia. Some of that History is available at the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library.  More is developed daily. It is an on-going process. To talk to Blacks – what was it like for you?  Really like. How did you make it?  What has it done to you – good or bad?. What should we as Whites try to understand? Is prejudice still here? What could be done about that? We need to come together as one people with diverse backgrounds.

Myself and many other whites would like to know. How can we best help? Does having the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library and Slave Cabin help or hurt? Is it a plus or a minus to Sedalia. If a minus- how can we make it be a plus?

To each of you, my best in our struggles to truly come together as a town and a nation. If there is anyway I can help, please let me know.

Marge Harlan, Curator
Rose M. Nolen Black History Library
109 Lima Alley
Sedalia, Mo. 65301

A closing thought, found in my reading for this paper, is a poem written sometime in the late 1800’s by John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary during the Civil War.

“Banty Tim” (Remarks of Sergeant Tilmon Joy to the White Man’s Committee of Spunky Point, Illinois)

In an effort to expel the only Negro, Banty Jim, to create a Sundown Town, one white man Tilmon Joy, faces them down” preventing a mob from forming and allowing Banty Tim to stay.

I reckon I git your drift, gents—
You ‘low the boy shan’t stay.
This is a white man’s country:
You’re Dimicrats, you say.

Why blame your hearts, jest hear me!
You know that ungodly day
When our left struck Vicksburg Heights-how ripped
And torn and tattered we lay. . .

Till along toward dusk I seen a thing
I couldn’t believe for a spell:
That nigger – that Tim—was a crawlin’ to me
Through that fireproof, gilt edged hell!

The Rebels seen him as quick as me,
“And the bullets buzzed like bees:
“But he jumped for me, and shouldered me,
Though a shot brought him once to his knees:

But he staggered up and packed me off,
With a dozen stumbles and falls,
Till safe in our lines he dropped us both,
His black hide riddled with balls.

So my gentle gazelles, that’s my answer,
And here stays Banty Tim:
He trumped Death’s ace for me that day,
And I’m not going back on him!

John Hay