Friday read: Sundown Towns

Watching the online reaction to Lovecraft Country‘s pilot episode this week, I’ve seen a number of viewers mention that this is the first time they’ve ever heard of the concept of a sundown town. So I thought I’d re-up my recommendation of James W. Loewen’s excellent book on the subject.

Sundown Towns was a hugely important resource when I was researching my novel. It’s where I learned about black travel guides like The Negro Motorist Green Book, and it’s also where I first read about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. Most importantly, it’s a book that helped me understand that Jim Crow-era racism was just as big a problem in the North as in the South.

Contrary to what you might expect, sundown towns were relatively rare in the South, where black people were traditionally viewed as a source of exploitable labor and their presence tolerated. Elsewhere in America, attitudes were very different. Loewen documents the waves of ethnic cleansing that began in the post-Civil War era and continued through the mid-twentieth century, as white citizens in the northern and western U.S. sought to drive out non-whites who they saw as undesirable. Much of this history has been suppressed or forgotten, but the legacy of it persists: Even today, there are big swaths of the country where you’ll rarely encounter anyone who isn’t white, and that’s not an accident.

In addition to Sundown Towns, I’d also recommend Loewen’s other books, Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. And Loewen’s website includes a sundown town database where you can learn about confirmed or suspected sundown towns in your home state.

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