During a recent interview I mentioned that the scene that launches my novel takes place in a sundown town. While the interviewer knew what a sundown town was, she asked me to explain the term for listeners who might never have heard of them. The short answer is that it is a community that required people of color to leave town before the sun went down. They could work there from dawn until dusk but after dark, they became prey. I was well into adulthood before I ever heard the term sundown town. I assumed the reason for my ignorance was because I had grown up in New York City and not the south where I believed only sundown towns existed.
For my novel, Provenance, I created the fictional city of Llewellyn, a sundown town in southern Virginia. As I researched this abhorrent social practice I learned that there were many very real “sundown towns” throughout the United States – they were not unique to the south or to African-Americans. Communities from Connecticut to California placed signs at their borders warning African-American and other ethnicities—including the Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Native Americans and Mexicans—that they had better leave town by sundown. If they were caught inside city limits they were subject to harassment or worse by the police or vigilantes. The book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen was a great resource.
Sundown towns were a form of racial apartheid throughout America but not the only tactic used to segregate communities. Restrictive covenants ensured that homes in a community could not be rented or purchased by people of color and the Federal Housing Authority only offered mortgages to non–mixed housing developments. As dramatized in Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking and award-winning 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” some white homeowners sought to buy out black families when they purchased homes in their communities. There were communities that burned crosses in the front yards of black homes to scare them away and some white neighbors went farther and burned down the house of a black family just to maintain the racial status quo.
I knew racial discrimination existed north of the Mason-Dixon Line. My father, Kenneth Drew, was a New York City Human Rights Commissioner and he and my mother, Corien Davies Drew, founded a community based newspaper that was very active in the civil rights movement in New York and beyond. However, in doing the research for my book, I was surprised to find that one of the most egregious sundown towns was Levittown, New York. In Martha Biondi’s book, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City, the author notes that Levittown, regarded as the model for postwar suburbs across the country, held the distinction in 1953 “of being the largest community in America with no black population.” Just as remarkable, though the developers, Abraham, William and Alfred Levitt were Jewish, they would not sell homes in Levittown to Jews.
Until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, sundown towns, restrictive covenants and government aided and financed housing discrimination were legal practices in the United States. A sundown town informs the story of a family in my novel and is now considered a relic of the past. However, there are still segregated communities throughout the United States; be they white or black, they remain a critical factor in dictating the social, economic and racial climate in America.