Sundown towns were communities that purposefully excluded African Americans and other racial minorities from living in, or simply passing through, their community through a culture of fear, violence, and intimidation. Education, popular culture, and racial science instilled in the minds of white Americans a negative image of African Americans. African Americans were then seen as a “problem” to be avoided all together. Sundown towns denied African Americans the freedom to settle in many parts of the country and have contributed to our disbursement of racial demographics today.
Consider this 1905 newspaper article about Syracuse, Ohio:
In Syracuse, Ohio, on the Ohio river, a town of about 2,000 inhabitants, no Negro is permitted to live, not even to stay overnight under any consideration. This is an absolute rule in this year 1905, and has existed for several generations. The enforcement of this unwritten law is in the hands of the boys from 8 to 20 years of age…
When a Negro is seen in town during the day he is generally told of these traditions…and is warned to leave before sundown. If he fails to take heed, he is surrounded at about the time darkness begins, and is addressed by the leader of the gang in about this language: ‘No nigger is allowed to stay in this town over night. Get out of here now, and get out quick.’
He sees from 25 to 30 boys around him talking in subdued voices and waiting to see whether he obeys. If he hesitates, little stones begin to reach from unseen quarters and soon persuade him to begin his hegira. He is not allowed to walk, but is told to ‘Get on his little dog trot.’ The command is always effective for it is backed by stones in the ready hands of boys none too friendly.
So long as he keeps up a good gait, the crowd, which follows just at his heels, and which keeps growing until it sometimes numbers 75 to 100 boys, is good-natured and contents itself with yelling, laughing, and hurling gibes at its victim. But let him stop his ‘trot’ for one moment, from any cause whatever, and the stones immediately take effect as their chief persuader. Thus they follow him to the farthest limits of the town, where they send him on, while they return to the city with triumph and tell their fathers all about the function, how fast the victim ran, how scared he was, how he pleaded and promised that he would go and never return if they would only leave him alone.
Then the fathers tell how they used to do the same thing, and thus the heroes of two wars spend the rest of the evening by the old campfire, recounting their several campaigns.
Sundown Towns in Oregon
When Oregon became a state in 1859, it entered into the Union with Black exclusionary laws, essentially making it a “whites only state.” In 1890, 17 of Oregon’s 32 counties had 0-10 African Americans living in them. However, by 1930, 28 of Oregon’s 32 counties had 0-10 African Americans living in them. African Americans were pushed from rural communities into condensed urban settings. It is estimated that most of Oregon was once a sundown town.
Our state and national consciousness have attempted to forget this history. Newspapers, historical societies, and history textbooks make little mention of sundown towns. Many present-day residents are unaware of their community’s history of racial exclusion, yet the remnants of that history remain today. African Americans are still wary of traveling throughout much of Oregon, and, those who are brave enough to settle where they were once unwelcome, continue to experience the lingering ramifications of communities that have not yet reconciled their history of racial exclusion.
Please join us in preserving the history of sundown towns in Oregon so that we may learn from it, grow from it, and use it to create a more welcoming community for us all.
THE SUNRISE PROJECT
“From Sundown to Sunrise”
The Sunrise Project seeks to help former sundown towns reconcile their history by developing a new identity as a sunrise community.
Mission: Rewrite the ending to the story of a sundown town by creating an ending in which a formally exclusionary community can become one of the communities most intentionally committed to inclusivity because of its history.
Vision: To create a community in which everyone can feel safe, respected, and like they can call this space their home.
Remembrance makes redemption possible.
Grants Pass, OR
Grants Pass, like many Oregon communities, was a sundown town. Sundown towns were communities that purposefully excluded African Americans and other racial minorities from living in, or simply passing through, their community through a culture of fear, violence, and intimidation. There was a sign in Grants Pass into the late 1960’s/early 1970’s that read, “Nigger, don’t let the sun come down on you here.”
The work is titled The Sunrise Project with the idea that “sunrise” is the opposite to “sundown” and signals the start of a new day. We are trying to develop in Grants Pass a new identity as a “sunrise community.” Currently, we are working on an educational resource about what sundown towns looked like both nationally and locally, how that exclusion evolved into the present, and then the next steps a community can take to becoming a more inclusive environment. Included within this educational resource will be an oral history component. We are collecting the stories from those with first-hand memories of sundown towns in Oregon. We are talking with white individuals who remember their community as a sundown town, older African Americans who remember navigating sundown towns in Oregon, and African Americans who can speak to their recent experience living in former sundown towns. This vision of a sunrise community is largely relational. Thus, we are developing a framework of remembrance-repair-redemption for interpersonal harm rectification that can be applied and adopted within a variety of community settings.
We are looking to culminate this work in the installation of a historical marker in the community. One side discussing racial exclusion in Oregon and Grants Pass and the other side functioning as the community’s stated commitment to inclusivity. So, while it’s the culmination of work, it’s really the start of a never-ending journey to live out the ideals that are written on the marker. If we are successful, this will be the first ever historical marker about sundown towns in the entire United States. The goal is to expand the Sunrise Project into other Oregon communities and create a blueprint for communities across the country to follow when it comes to reconciling our nation’s history of sundown towns.