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Sundown Towns on Stage and Screen

The history of sundown towns—communities that for decades were "all white" on purpose—figures prominently in plays that opened this past month in two Southern states, Virginia and Arkansas.  No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, by John Henry Redwood III, opened at Port City Playhouse at The Lab at Convergence in Alexandria, near Washington, D.C.  Sundown Town, by Kevin Cohea, showed at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, near Wal-Mart headquarters.  Both proved well worth seeing. 

Redwood's play is set in Halifax, North Carolina, in 1949.  It premiered in Philadelphia in 2001.  According to the playwright, who died in 2001, the title came from a sign he saw in Mississippi.  In the play, the male lead refers to the sign as set at the edge of a town in Alabama.  TheatreSquared advertized Cohea's play as a world premiere, although a version was performed earlier at a theater lab in Arkansas.  Set before World War II, its location is "Healing Springs, Arkansas," whose sundown town sign graced the left side of the stage.  Built into the script were three selling points from a real ad for Siloam Springs, Arkansas:  "No Malaria, No Mosquitoes, and No Negroes."

Both productions were well acted.  Sundown Town was more impressively mounted.  It featured an evocative set that included a four-piece bluegrass band, attractively placed in a sort of balcony.  Throughout the play, a dozen bluegrass songs and hymns related to what we had just seen.  Each play involved at least one murder; the "No Play," as it is sometimes euphemistically referred to, also included the off-stage rape of the main character, a black woman, by a local white racist. 

Both plays make good use of the past and do not do violence to historical fact.  Although I managed to see both productions, I'll not review them here.  My interest lies in their simultaneity and what it says about racism as portrayed in American culture.

In reality, sundown towns were primarily a Northern phenomenon, where they were astonishingly prevalent.  I was born and raised in Decatur, Illinois.  Growing up, I knew that most towns in central Illinois were all white, but it never occurred to me that they might be all white on purpose.  I thought black folks were merely showing good judgment by not choosing to live in Niantic, population 890, or De Land, population 458—towns too small to have a motion picture show.  In 1999, when I began to study sundown towns in earnest, I knew I would do more research in Illinois than in any other single state, simply because I was familiar with it.  I imagined I would find perhaps ten sundown towns in Illinois and fifty across the nation.  Not so.  To my astonishment, I am now at a count of 502 sundown towns in Illinois alone—70 percent of all the towns above 1,000 in the state—including Niantic and De Land, of course.  A similar ratio holds, I believe, in Oregon, Indiana, and various other Northern states.  Some were quite large:  Appleton, Wisconsin, had 60,000 people when it was a sundown town.  Warren, Michigan, had 180,000.  About 80 percent of the suburbs of Northern cities, from Long Island to Los Angeles, formed as all-white enclaves. 

Nor should the foregoing paragraph be viewed as safely in the past.  Entire counties in the Midwest, the Ozarks, and Appalachia, and scattered towns across the nation still have no black families.  Two years ago I talked with residents of Calhoun County, Illinois, for example, north of St. Louis.  As far as they knew, one black male, living with a white female, constituted the county's entire black population, and they did not think it prudent for a black family to move in.  Calhoun is hardly alone in maintaining this peculiar institution.

Our culture imagines things very differently.  No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs and Sundown Town are not the first plays to set sundown towns in the South.  That honor may go to Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending, in which the sheriff in a small Deep South town tells the main character about a nearby county that displays a sign, "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You In This County."  Hollywood made two films from this play, Orpheus Descending and The Fugitive Kind, the latter starring Marlon Brando.  Hollywood also set two other films in the Deep South that include sundown town signs, Sudie and Simpson, a 1984 film about Georgia starring Louis Gosset Jr., and Danny Glover's 2000 film Freedom Song, set in Mississippi. 

In reality, no sign saying "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" ever disgraced any sundown town in Mississippi.  I can write that without fear of error, because it is inconceivable that any Southern community ever banned dogs.  I believe that the playwright saw the sign, but surely on a bar or restaurant or perhaps a hotel.  Even on a building, though, such a sign would have been rare in Mississippi because of its reference to Jews.  Anti-Semitic signs were more common at vacation hotels and country clubs in the East, from Franconia, New Hampshire, to Miami Beach. 

At the city limits, I have not confirmed any sundown town sign in Mississippi.  In most states, that would merely make manifest my pitifully inadequate research.  So many sundown towns developed across the North that each Northern state probably contains at least a dozen communities that displayed signs but that I have not yet uncovered.  Because I lived in Mississippi for eight years, however, I tried to find every sundown town I could in the Magnolia State.  I found three.  That contrasts with 502 in Illinois.  The only town I have confirmed for sure in Mississippi, Mize, population 309 in 1990, was considered so unusual that its whiteness prompted newspaper stories.  Traditional white Southerners viewed the sundown rule as idiotic.  "Who'd be the maid?"  "Who'll do the dirty work?"  My book, Sundown Towns, tells of a rich white family from Alabama that, after moving to a sundown town in Indiana, had to send their maid back to Alabama, lest she be killed.

Midwestern newspapers did not comment on the whiteness of towns—they thought it "natural."  In Northern locations where black exclusion actually happened, Hollywood covers it up.  Take Grosse Pointe Blank, for example, a John Cusack vehicle. This film not only fails to tell that Grosse Pointe was all-white on purpose, it inserts a black alumnus or two into the major character's high school reunion.  The filmmakers had to have known better:  Grosse Pointe was not only sundown when the Cusack character went to high school, it was all-white at the time of the reunion scene.  Indeed, it remained sundown in 1997 when the movie was shot.  Hoosiers, a basketball movie starring Gene Hackman, similarly obfuscates the racial reality of 1950s Indiana.  Hoosiers is about one small Indiana sundown town defeating another in basketball; the key game is played in Jasper, a larger sundown town.  Nevertheless, African Americans crash cymbals in the band and play other roles they could never have played even in 1986, when the movie was filmed.  As one Jasper resident wrote in 2002, "All southern Hoosiers laughed at the movie called Hoosiers because the movie depicts blacks playing basketball and sitting in the stands at games in Jasper.  We all agreed no blacks were permitted until probably the '60s and do not feel welcome today."

Nonfiction media also follow this rule of portraying sundown towns in the South, where they are rare, and ignoring them in the North, where they are widespread.  Oprah Winfrey broadcast a live TV show from Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1987, the 75th anniversary of the expulsion of Forsyth's black residents.  Robby Heason's gripping 1990 documentary treats Corbin, in southern Kentucky, which had expelled its African Americans in 1919.  Jacqueline Froelich and David Zimmermann produced a fine radio documentary telling how two race riots by whites in Harrison, Arkansas, drove out its black population shortly after 1900.  In 2006, Paula Zahn broadcast a CNN segment on sundown towns from Vidor, Texas.  The next year, Marco Williams produced Banished, which focuses upon Forsyth (again), Harrison (again), and Pierce City, Missouri, which the film emphasizes lies in southern Missouri.

No production, fiction or nonfiction, on stage, screen, radio, or any other medium has ever told the story of Medford, Oregon; Appleton, Wisconsin; Tonawanda, New York; or any other sundown town or county in the North.  Two productions to my knowledge have discussed exclusion in suburbs.  Gentleman's Agreement, Elia Kazan's movie of Laura Hobson's novel, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1948.  It treats the agreement by which the power elite in Darien, Connecticut, kept out Jews.  Interestingly, it makes no mention of Darien's exclusion of African Americans.  Brian Copeland's one-man show, Not a Genuine Black Man, describes growing up in San Leandro, California, then a sundown suburb of Oakland, but for his family.  As well, a few plays and movies, notably Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, treat residential discrimination in the North but do not hint at sundown towns and suburbs. 

The result of this overemphasis on stage and screen on sundown towns in the South is ignorance in the North.  Within Northern states, whites assume the southern sections have the sundown towns.  The guidebook to a 1995-97 exhibit at the Indiana State Historical Museum, Indiana in the Civil War, came to this too-easy conclusion:  "Some small towns and rural areas, especially in southern Indiana, developed reputations for hostility and intimidation, causing blacks residing there to leave and discouraging newcomers." Certainly that happened in southern Indiana, but whites also visited similar intimidation and hostility upon African Americans in small towns and rural areas around Indianapolis, in the northeast quarter of the state, and just south of Lake Michigan, resulting in sundown towns just about everywhere.

Many Northerners live in ongoing sundown towns, yet have no idea that their communities are this way on purpose.  Just this morning, through my sundown towns website (http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntowns.php), an Illinois resident assured me that Niantic, De Land, and other central Illinois towns are not sundown towns.  "They just don't have any black people in them."  Civic leaders too deny this reality, even when it has been documented, and because our culture emphasizes the Southern-ness of overt racism, they are believed.  Thus ignorance of sundown towns in the North helps them stay sundown.

I do not mean this essay as a critique of either play I saw last week.  Kevin Cohea, in particular, was writing about his backyard:  he teaches in Siloam Springs, one of the sundown towns that inspired his play.  Fayetteville was never a sundown town, but sundown towns surrounded it, since this part of Arkansas lies in the Ozarks, not the traditional South.  But even northwestern Arkansas seemed able to distance from the phenomenon last week.  Accompanying the production was a display of photographs of African Americans who lived in the area in the era depicted in the play.  No display told of the towns that did not allow African Americans in that era, some of which remain all white.  No discussion ensued about what might be called "second generation sundown town problems," issues that can still plague a town even after it chooses to admit a handful of black families.  At the Virginia theater, nothing implied that the severe racism of the play's title might be found much nearer than Mississippi or even North Carolina.  Several sundown suburbs surrounded Washington, D.C.; at least five were still overwhelmingly white in 2000.

Of course, both writers have a perfect right to write about whatever part of the country they wish, in whatever era.  My point in writing this essay is not to criticize their choices, but to call to the attention of other playwrights and filmmakers—and of the rest of us—the elephant in the republic's all-white living rooms.  The towns and cities across the North that for decades excluded African Americans—and may still do—deserve their own plays, feature films, and video and radio documentaries.  Not just those in Dixie.