AP Road Trip: Racial tensions in America's 'sundown towns'
VIENNA, Ill. (AP) — Ask around this time-battered Midwestern town, with its empty storefronts, dusty antique shops and businesses that have migrated toward the interstate, and nearly everyone will tell you that Black and white residents get along really well.
“Race isn’t a big problem around here,” said Bill Stevens, a white retired prison guard with a gentle smile, drinking beer with friends on a summer afternoon. “Never has been, really.”
“We don’t have any trouble with racism,” said a twice-widowed woman, also white, with a meticulously-kept yard and a white picket fence.
But in Vienna, as in hundreds of mostly white towns with similar histories across America, much is left unspoken. Around here, almost no one talks openly about the violence that drove out Black residents nearly 70 years ago, or even whispers the name these places were given: “sundown towns.”
Unless they’re among the handful of Black residents.
“It’s real strange and weird out here sometimes,” said Nicholas Lewis, a stay-at-home father. “Every time I walk around, eyes are on me.”
The rules of a sundown town were simple: Black people were allowed to pass through during the day or go in to shop or work, but they had to be gone by nightfall. Anyone breaking the rules could risk arrest, a beating or worse.
These towns were an open secret of racial segregation that spilled over much of the nation for at least a century, and still exist in various forms, enforced today more by tradition and fear than by rules.
Across America, some of these towns are now openly wrestling with their histories, publicly acknowledging now-abandoned racist laws or holding racial justice protests. Some old sundown towns are now integrated. But many also still have tiny Black communities living alongside residents who don’t bother hiding their cold stares of disapproval.
This story was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
This part of southern Illinois had at least a half-dozen sundown towns. We came here on the second stop of The Associated Press’ road trip across America, a reporting journey that three of us are taking to look at how the U.S. has been shaken and shaped by months of protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis and the looming November elections.
We wanted to take a close look at systemic racism, trying to understand how something that is so crushingly obvious to some people can be utterly invisible to others.
So we went to a longtime sundown town.
They were called “grey towns,” in some parts of America, “sunset towns” in others. The terms were used by both Black and white people.
Very often, especially in well-to-do suburbs that didn’t want to be known as racist, they had no name at all. But they still kept out Black residents. There were hundreds of such towns, scholars say, reaching from New York to Oregon. Perhaps thousands.
James Loewen, a historian who spent years studying sundown towns, found them in the suburbs of Detroit, New York City and Chicago. He found them outside Los Angeles, in midwestern farming villages and in New England summer towns.
Sometimes, the rules were official policies, with signs at the edge of towns warning Black people to be gone by nightfall. More often, everyone - both Black and white - simply knew the unwritten rules.
In this area, near the borders of both Missouri and Kentucky, young Black people were raised to be aware of which towns they should avoid.
“It was something that was known,” said James Davis, 27, a Black truck driver from the nearby town of Cairo, which is largely Black. “But also something that our parents taught us growing up.”
In places still seen as sundown towns, many Black people now follow their own rules: Avoid them if possible, and lock your car doors if you have to drive through. If you stop for gas, look for a well-lit gas station with security cameras.
So it is in Vienna.
“Every time you come into town, or you go into a gas station, or in a store, people look at you,” said Victoria Vaughn, a biracial 17-year-old who has been coming to Vienna for years to visit her white grandparents.
“You can feel them looking at you, feel them staring,” she said. “I’ve never had anybody say anything (racist) to me in Vienna, but I’ve definitely felt the way they felt about me.”
She was in Vienna on a recent Saturday to join a rally organized after a group of Vienna High School students created a social media account that included the phrase “hate Black people” in its title. Vaughn and her grandmother were among the 50 or so people who turned out for the rally, along with about 25 counter-protesters.
At first things went well. Protesters and counter-protesters prayed together. They talked calmly about race. But not for long.
“Bullshit!” an older white man shouted at Vaughn, after she said Black people aren’t treated equally. “They get the same as the white people get!”
Vaughn, whose grandmother gently pulled her back from the confrontation with the angry older man, isn’t surprised that Vienna’s white residents don’t see racial issues around them. The situation is far more subtle today than when Black residents were forced out.
“Until you live in a Black or brown person’s body you’re not going to understand,” she said. “You have to know somebody who lived it, or live it yourself, to truly understand.”
Today it’s just an overgrown field, vibrant green from recent rains.
But 60 years ago, there was a small collection of houses along that stretch of 7th Street, where the outer edges of Vienna bump up against Little Cache Creek. Everyone who lived there was Black.
The violence erupted in August, 1954, after the arrest of a 31-year-old resident, Thomas Lee Latham, who was accused of brutally beating an elderly white woman with a soft drink bottle and trying to rape her granddaughter.
“Vienna Negro Held on Charge of Assault With Attempt to Murder,” the Vienna Times declared on its front page after Latham was arrested, hours after the attack. The older woman died days later.
A few weeks after his arrest, Latham escaped from jail. Dozens of armed men took to the streets of Vienna and the surrounding fields, backed up by bloodhounds and spotters in low-flying planes.
Within hours, the cluster of Black homes along 7th Street were ablaze, with smoke and flames rising above the town.
A week or so later Latham gave himself up and pleaded guilty. One day after he surrendered, he was sentenced to 180 years in prison.
By then, the town’s Black residents were gone.
“The Black community, from that point on, disappeared from Vienna,” said Darrel Dexter, a historian and high school teacher who has studied the violence of 1954.
Black people had lived in and around Vienna since the late 1820s or early 1830s, said Dexter. But he estimates that after the fires, perhaps 50 people fled the town. The town later repaid Black residents for their lost homes, the Times reported, though there is no indication anyone was ever prosecuted.
The 1950 census showed 54 Black people living in Vienna.
In 2000, it showed one.
A couple of blocks from the field where Vienna’s Black community once lived, down a narrow dead-end street, a grandmother with pink fingernails and an easy laugh watches over an extended family that spans much of America’s Black-white divide.
They are not what you’d expect to find here.
“It’s our sanctuary,” Maribeth Harris said of the street. One of her daughters lives next door. Another lives across the street with her boyfriend, Nicholas Lewis. Harris has custody of three grandkids while Lewis cares for the fourth, an 18-month-old in Spiderman pajamas on a recent afternoon.
Harris, her husband and their daughters are white. Lewis is Black. The grandchildren are biracial.
“This is our own little world down here,” Harris said, sighing before she begins listing some of the troubles the family has faced. “They just brush everything under the rug.”
There was the time one of the kids was called “burned toast” by a classmate. Or when an elderly woman walked past the family at a church dinner and loudly called the children “damn half-breeds.”
There was the day the 10-year-old came home with a painful question: “Grandma, why do I have to be Black?”
She and her husband moved to Vienna about 10 years ago from northern Illinois, chasing work and a cheaper cost of living. But with her oldest grandson edging up on adolescence, she knows they should leave soon, before they have to worry about such things as confrontations with police.
“We want to get out of here,” she said. “We have to figure out what’s good for them. And Vienna won’t be good for them.”
Lewis joined the little enclave two years ago, expecting a short visit but staying after his girlfriend, one of Harris’ daughters, got pregnant.
He’s an unassuming man deeply in love with his young son, Nick. If he hasn’t felt the sting of outright racism in Vienna, he’s exhausted by how residents constantly watch him.
It’s complicated, he added, because most people are friendly once they know him. But he also believes his family should leave.
“I don’t want my son raised down here,” he said. “I don’t want him out here where (white people) are all he sees.”
They call themselves The Gunsmoke Club.
Their clubhouse, a few miles outside Vienna, is an old gas station, later turned into a convenience store and now a gathering place for a dozen or so friends. It’s part workshop, part bar, part informal store. But mostly it’s a place for a bunch of gray-haired men to pass the time, drink light beer and relive a sliver of their childhoods every day at noon with reruns of “Gunsmoke,” the TV show about a marshal whose steely nerve and Colt revolver kept the peace in the American West.
“That’s what formed this nation!,” said Rick Warren, a 65-year-old in blue jeans and a T-shirt, only partially joking. “’Gunsmoke’ and John Wayne!”
This is a deeply conservative part of the nation — 77 percent of the county voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 elections; just 19 percent went for Hillary Clinton. The Gunsmoke Club reflects that. They are pro-Trump, anti-abortion, virulently against gun control and distrust the coronavirus rules and the media (though after warming up they were very welcoming to us).
For them, race has become an issue twisted far beyond proportion, a cudgel for hypocritical liberals.
“Really, we got a good country, and I think there is probably some racism going on. But I try not to be racist,” Stevens, the retired prison guard, said in his gentle drawl about this year’s protests over racial injustice. “I think they’re overreacting a little bit.”
Warren is more blunt, pounding his fist on a particle-board table when he gets really angry.
“I’ve had Black friends. I’ve had Black babysitters. I had Black people who took care of me through my childhood,” he said. But the easygoing race relations of his youth were lost, he said, when President Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through some of the most important civil rights legislation of the 20th century, “came along and turned it into a bunch of racial bullshit!”
Then there’s former President Barack Obama, who speaks regularly about his white mother from Kansas and his Black father from Kenya, but who personally identifies as Black.
“He claims to be Black!” Warren said, pounding the table. “What the hell happened to his white mama?”
Another of the men later pulls back his shirt to show that he now carries a .357-magnum revolver tucked into his jeans, worried about the unrest that occasionally flared during this year’s racial protests.
Vienna’s own violent history doesn’t come up until the men are asked about it.
Stevens was about 10 when it happened.
“When they burned them out that time, a lot of them just packed their bags and went up north,” said Stevens, who said he hated to see Black classmates driven from town.
“For a long time there were very very few Blacks in this county, and then they started easing back in,” he said. “We got a few more families in here now, but we get along good.”
How many sundown towns remain? It’s rarely clear anymore. Openly racist laws are now largely illegal, and few towns want the infamy of being known for keeping out Black people. Scholars often rely now on demographic data, looking carefully at towns that have tiny Black populations.
Loewen, the historian, says the number is clearly dropping, categorizing many as “recovering” sundown towns, where organized resistance to Black residents has ended but the racial divide can remain wide. Vienna would almost certainly fall into that category.
Dexter sees hope in the dozens of former sundown towns that have held racial justice protests, from the infamous Illinois sundown town of Anna to Hopewell, Michigan, once home to a powerful Ku Klux Klan leader, which Black Detroit residents have long avoided.
“I do think that there are lots of changes, and progress, being made today. Mostly I think that comes from people talking about the issue,” he said. “People didn’t want to talk about it before.”
But while legal protections and changing mores have lessened the power of sundown towns, there are still plenty of them with well-known racist histories. Sometimes, towns know their violent past keeps racial minorities away. Sometimes, that history makes those minorities avoid them.
“It’s not by law” that Black people remain a tiny population in many towns, Dexter said. “It’s by tradition.”
Even in Vienna things are changing.
But ever so slowly.
In 2010, the U.S. census said there were 1,434 people in Vienna. Sixteen of them were Black.