Readers my recall my review of the film Green Book (2018) about a black classical pianist and his white driver going on a road trip during the Jim Crow era as part of a concert tour. The title of the film came from a travel guide called The Negro Motorist Green Book that was written by a US postal worker Victor Hugo Green to advise black travellers about what towns to avoid and what places they could stay at and eat. One of the most important pieces of information was to avoid so-called ‘sundown’ towns.
Logan Jaffe of ProPublica Illinois writes about one such small town called Anna in rural Illinois that had such a history and how it is slowly, very slowly, trying to put it behind them, though with only partial success.
Her account begins with a ‘joke’ that someone at a bar in Anna told her on her visit to the town
I GOT INTO TOWN JUST AFTER SUNSET. The lights were on at a place called the Brick House Grill, and if you were out on South Main Street on a Friday night in February, chances are, that’s where you were going. So I went in, too.
I took a seat at the bar. A man two stools over from me struck up a conversation. I told him I was a journalist from Chicago and asked him to tell me about this town. “You know how this town is called Anna?” he started. “That’s for ‘Ain’t No Niggers Allowed.’” He laughed, shook his head and took a sip of his beer.
The man was white. I am white. Everyone else in that restaurant in Anna was white.
Later that night, I realized what shook me most about our conversation: He didn’t pause before he said what he said. He didn’t look around the room to see whether anyone could hear us. He didn’t lower his voice. He just said it.
I first learned about Anna in a book called “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” about the thousands of communities across the country that, for much of the 20th century, kept themselves white. The term “sundown town” applies to places that, via policy, violence or both, barred black people from town after dark; as the book explains, the phrase is derived from “the signs that many of [these places] formerly sported at their corporate limits — signs that usually said ‘Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in __.’”
I picked up the book in part because its author, James W. Loewen, a sociologist who taught at the University of Vermont and at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, is from Decatur, Illinois. Much of his research on sundown towns led him back to his home state, where I now live and which I wanted to better understand.
When Loewen began his research in 1999, he thought he’d find just a handful of sundown towns and “recovering” sundown towns, as he calls them, in Illinois. Instead, he found hundreds, from neighborhoods on Chicago’s North Shore to suburbs in the center of the state to small towns in southern Illinois, such as Anna.
But the stories of how these communities became or stayed mostly white are often unknown, ignored or not fully told. Loewen said sundown towns sprang up all around the country from 1890 to 1940, a period he calls the “nadir” of race relations in America. “For the small, independent towns all around the state that are still all white or almost all white, it’s like the civil rights movement never happened,” he told me.
Jaffe writes that there are many ‘Annas’, some grappling with how to change their image while others seem less concerned about it.
You get a state of what these towns were like from the trailer for Green Book, a film that I really liked.