Sundown Towns in the Hoosier State: What Can Be Done?

Posted on: July 30, 2019, by :
A sign posted in a restaurant in a sundown town during the 1950’s.

Madison is a city in Jefferson County, Indiana. It is situated along the Ohio River on the Indiana-Kentucky border. The town of over 10,000 is picturesque, quaint, its downtown a National Historic Landmark District. It’s also known for its pristine waterfalls, found nearby at Cliffty Falls State Park. This was the location of an anti-KKK protest I covered back in September 2018. It was a recruitment drive, advertised as a “Kookout” by the group that held it, an Indiana branch of the Klan called the Honorable Sacred Knights. Only thirteen of these “Honorable” Klanspeople bothered to show up, though apparently eight people actually went over to join them for their “Kookout,” which drew hundreds of protestors. However, there seemed to be a bigger problem facing this particular community. Yes, they have a branch of the Ku Klux Klan holding annual rallies in their town. But Madison also has a darker reputation, one not widely discussed. Madison, Indiana was, and still is, considered by some to be a sundown town. I was actually told this after I got back from the rally, which explained why several friends and family were so concerned about me going. A Republican running for political office in Marion County who I won’t name told me that students of color at nearby Hanover College (several of whom were at the protest) are actually told to avoid the town altogether when going out on the weekends and instead go to nearby Louisville. I couldn’t find anything online corroborating this, but I don’t doubt that it’s true. This isn’t an isolated case however, or a rarity here in Indiana, a state where the most powerful branch of the KKK in the country once operated in the early 20th century. There were, and in several instances still are, plenty of other sundown towns in the Hoosier state.

Most people here in Indiana have heard of Martinsville, a town in Morgan County between Indianapolis and Bloomington that has a reputation for being hostile towards African-Americans. A Herald Bulletin article went so far as to call Martinsville “the poster child” for sundown towns in Indiana. This largely stems from the 1968 murder of Carol Jenkins, a black woman who was murdered while selling encyclopedias after dark in Martinsville. The reputation of a sundown town continues to this day. So what is a sundown town? A sundown town is a community that by law, unofficial policy, or by threats and intimidation, bars African-Americans. They get their names from the signs often found outside of the particular locale warning African-Americans not to linger in town after dusk. Older Hoosiers may remember hearing about such a sign being displayed outside of Elwood, Indiana well into the 1970’s. Some may have even seen it. According to one Indianapolis man I talked to whose parents showed it to him decades ago, it read “N****r don’t let the sun come down on you here.” Similar signs could be found outside of towns all over the Midwest. African-Americans who remained in such towns or municipalities after dark risked physical harm, or even death. It’s not just African-Americans who were excluded by such communities. Latinos, Jews, and others have faced similar exclusion from sundown towns. Even Catholics at one point were excluded from certain communities. Prior to that in the late 19th century it was the Chinese that were being forced out of certain towns and communities out West. But in the 20th (and 21st) century, sundown towns are most often associated with excluding African-Americans.

Sociologist James Loewen has written extensively on the subject of sundown towns, a topic with which many are unfamiliar. According to Loewen, sundown towns were established primarily during the period of 1890-1940. This period is known by most historians as “the Nadir” of race relations in this country. These were communities that became all-white on purpose, in certain instances even by forcefully expelling their black residents. Sometimes one or two black families were allowed to remain in the town. Any others trying to move in faced blatant threats, intimidation, some even having their recently purchased homes burned down just when they’ve begun to move in (or a burning cross on their front lawn). Loewen writes that any town of 10,000 with a population of less than ten blacks could be considered sundown. Of course this no longer applies to Martinsville and Madison, though at one point it clearly did. And such a reputation isn’t easy to shed once attained.

None of these areas were all white on accident (some still are). Many affluent suburbs even began as sundown towns. Blacks began moving to the North in the decades following the Civil War, what’s known as “the Black Migration.” Many were fleeing from discrimination in the South, fueled by lingering animosity of certain Southerners over losing the war and the abolition of slavery, seeking to maintain dominion over blacks in some manner. Contrary to popular belief, sundown towns were not that common in the South (a few are reported to exist). They were largely “a Northern invention” according to Loewen, in response to the Black Migration, where towns expelled what black residents they had, if any, and forbade others from moving in. They were especially prevalent in the Midwest. Loewen estimates that between 3,000-15,000 towns were at one time sundown towns. Here in Indiana he listed 231 possible such towns, of which he “confirmed 95.”

I am not going to list all of those towns here though. The small town of Sheridan, in Hamilton County, was in the news back in 2016 due to a parade float that depicted President Obama on a toilet with a sign below him that read “Lying African” (according to the Indy Star, the only black family in Sheridan relocated shortly afterwards). Granted, that was blamed on one resident who wasn’t even officially a part of the parade. But such an incident does illustrate that certain racist elements are still alive and well in many Indiana towns. The lack of diversity in such areas feeds into certain racial stereotypes, such a blacks being inferior, violent, etc. And as a result such communities remain largely homogenous.

So how does one go about identifying such municipalities? Word of mouth, or actually talking to the older residents of such towns is the only method for learning about some, as it is not often advertised, especially nowadays. Most of the remaining sundown towns, and sundown suburbs, are now more subtle in their exclusionary tactics. They’re more numerous than one might think. And in recent decades, records that actually contained the laws that were in the books for many of these towns were either “lost” or destroyed. No pictures are even reported to currently exist of the sign that once stood outside of Elwood, though I have talked to people who had seen it. Checking census records is a method recommended by Loewen, noting in particular whether a town once had an African-American population, but then saw it make an abrupt decline. The argument could be made that African-Americans left these towns for better employment opportunities in the cities, though this fails to take into account the sheer prevalence of these predominantly white communities, ones which were not always of that nature. The fact remains though, once a town gets the reputation of being sundown, it tends to stick. And that is something many communities that were or still are sundown strive to avoid. Hence certain ones remain sundown to this day.

So what can be done? There is the case of Goshen, Indiana, known by many as a sundown town. The town took the unprecedented step of actually passing a resolution acknowledging and condemning their past as a sundown town on March 17th, 2015. It was the first of its kind not just in Indiana, but in the nation, according to The Mennonite, and while other towns have taken steps to admitting their history of excluding African-Americans from their communities, none have gone as far as Goshen. It serves as an example of how while the past cannot be changed, acknowledging it is critical for moving forward. Some were disappointed that the resolution wasn’t an actual apology, while others (white Goshen residents namely) argued that they felt it went too far, that the town’s exclusion of African-Americans was “in the past.” Nonetheless, they at least did something, which cannot be said of a great deal of other sundown communities.

Will other sundown towns follow Goshen’s example, or at least take steps towards being more inclusive? It may be difficult, but surely not impossible. Such communities, especially all-white suburbs, give the impression that self-segregation is natural, and for the latter that affluence and whiteness go hand in hand. In reality there are other factors at work here, namely racism. If these communities took steps to address their past racism and condemn it, it would be a significant step in the right direction. Until that happens, expect such communities, though not as blatantly exclusionary as they once were towards African-Americans, to remain unchanged.

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