• Carmen Milligan

Sundown Towns


When I moved to Arab, my boys were 6, 5, and 5 years old. I had moved them from everything they had ever known back to an extended family in Alabama that I yearned for them to know. In Alabama, there would be no more snow-covered hills for sledding, no need for snowsuits, and no contact on speed dial to plow the driveway so we could get out. However, there would be sand, surf, lightning bugs, and the best summer peaches they’d ever eat.


On a side note, the first time we went to the beaches of the Gulf Coast, they thought the sand was snow. Still one of the cutest memories I have of them as toddlers.


And there was another thing that radically changed: diversity. My oldest went to a few days of first grade, only to come home that first week and cry to me, “Where are the brown people?” You see, his best friend up north was a “brown” boy named Josh. He was looking to replace his friend with another like him.


Not in Arab. Not in 2001.


When we moved back to the deep south, this was still considered a “sundown town” by many. There is currently some buzz on this dubious distinction because of a new HBO series called “Lovecraft Country”. The first episode is titled “Sundown”, and refers to the notion that, if you were not white, you did not need to be in the area after the sun went down. Why? Well, you might get killed. Why? Because you are not welcome here. Why? Because you don’t look like me.


What, specifically, are sundown towns, gray towns, or sunset towns? They are towns, municipalities, suburbs, or neighborhoods that have an all-white population by design. Local ordinances, intimidation and out-and-out violence enforce the status. While the majority of the excluded population is black, there are also towns keeping out Jewish residents and Asian residents. There was a written housing covenant until 1990 in Lake Forest, Illinois, prohibiting black and Jews from owning homes in the area.


James William Loewen is an American sociologist, historian, and author, and wrote about sundown towns. And yes, Arab is mentioned. I found it interesting that the method of exclusion listed is “private bad behavior”. The excluded group: blacks.


Loewen put a survey on his webpage, asking for comments about known sundown towns. These are two about Arab:


Asked why there are no blacks in Arab, a resident says, "It's always been that way. There was one in the Ruth community; they called him Rabbit, Nigger Rabbit. Everybody liked him. He lived there until he died. In the '40s, maybe 50s, if they came shopping or something like that,

they'd run 'em out of town. It was one guy, really, a chiropractor. It'd be different now, that happened a long time ago, and it's still in their [blacks'] minds."


"Until the early 90's there was a sign as you entered Arab, Alabama that read 'Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On Your Black Ass in Arab, Alabama.'"


(https://sundown.tougaloo.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?id=791)


I can’t attest to either of these, since I moved here in 2001, but I can tell you that people outside of this area still raise their eyebrows when I give my address. They know. They’ve heard.


My mother tells me a story of Huntsville city officials filling in the community pool with concrete when it became integrated. They would rather no one have access to the pool than to allow blacks to swim with whites. But, again, this was in the late 60s or very early 70s. Sundown towns hit their peak, with over 10,000 towns intentionally staying exclusively white, in the 1970s.


And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out sundown towns were all over the nation, not just the deep south. Manitowoc, Wisconsin; Anna, Illinois (residents joke that “anna” is nicknamed “ain’t no N*****s allowed”); and, Amherst, Ohio are just a small sampling.


I think these feelings lessen with each generation. I hope, at least, they do. It is a natural human condition to want to be surrounded by people who look, believe, think, and speak like we do. But equality is something else entirely. Civil rights are something else entirely. Everyone should have equal opportunities. That includes working, living, loving, and vacationing in the place of their choice. There are crappy people everywhere, of every color. There are also very, very good people everywhere. Like the children’s song says, red, yellow, black, and white are all precious.


I encourage you to watch this HBO series because the way blacks were treated is depicted fairly here. Watch “The Green Book”, an Academy Award winning movie that depicts the true story of black people traveling with a book that outlined places friendly to black people on the road. Harassed, shamed, killed. By ignorant, mean, uneducated whites. And yes, it is still happening today. Education is the only way to change this.


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