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After The Sun Goes Down: How an untold history of exclusion and racism in Western sundown towns haunts the region and affects residents of color today

After The Sun Goes Down

After The Sun Goes Down

As a society, how can we deal with something if we cannot face it?

This question inspired sociologist and historian James Loewen, who died in August, to dig for the truth and uncover thousands of sundown towns across America, including dozens in the Mountain West. The term stems from signs posted near city limits warning racial and ethnic minorities to leave town before sundown. Sometimes city governments enacted their own ordinances. In other cases, white people took it a step further and violently expelled minority communities.

The uncomfortable truth about sundown towns “implicates the powers that be,” Loewen wrote in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. “The role played by governments regarding race relations can hardly be characterized as benign or even race-neutral.” In other words, through the enforcement of sundown town policies and other exclusionary laws, governments big and small have helped uphold white supremacy.

Loewen said confronting this history provides a chance to transcend the nation’s problematic past. “It is the first step toward, shall we say, a cure,” Loewen told the Mountain West News Bureau in June.

Indeed, Loewen believed “telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present.”

In this series, the Mountain West News Bureau explores some of the region’s exclusionary past to better understand what it means about our present.

1880
1920
1960
2020*
1880

“Surely, the fact that since about 1890, thousands of towns across the United States kept out African Americans, while others excluded Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Native or Mexican Americans, is worth knowing.”
- James Loewen, from his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism

This map shows the broad diversity stretching across the Mountain West at the end of Reconstruction, an era of increasingly positive race relations and mass non-white relocation all over the North and West. That changed after 1890, when people of color were “cold-shouldered and literally pushed out of county after county after county,” Loewen told the Mountain West News Bureau in June.

As this map of confirmed and probable sundown towns reflects, 97 of the 112 counties shown here had at least one Black resident counted in the 1880 census. Seventy-seven had at least one Chinese resident; 90 had at least one Native American resident.

Click the next tabs to see the Mountain West’s diversity decline in subsequent decades and learn more about sundown towns.

Map or tabs not loading? Click here for an alternate version.

1920

"The Nadir:" A racist reversal of the gains made during Reconstruction

The period from 1880 to 1940 was a “low point” for race relations, giving birth to racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act and sundown towns — communities that excluded various non-white groups with signs warning them to leave before sundown, violent expulsions and other techniques. As the number of counties in Mountain West states roughly doubled since 1880, the number without any Chinese residents increased by about three times in the 1920 census. The number with zero Native residents increased about five times.

Loewen described this era as “a dress rehearsal for ... the great retreat” of Black people from many parts of the North and West.

Click the next tab to see that “retreat” play out in these states.

1960

"A dispossession that uprooted people's lives forever..."

Mountain West states added 10 counties between 1920 and 1960, but the number without any Black residents almost doubled to 59. Census data show this era saw a notable decline in the rural Black population and a related spike in the urban Black population nationwide. From 1920, the number of counties without any Chinese residents also increased by nearly a third to 151.

Meanwhile, the number of counties without any Native American residents dropped dramatically.

Mountain West states began a return to the broader diversity of the late 1800s after the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Click the next tab above to see where things stand today.

2020*

"The first step toward transcending this white supremacist past."

Many counties in the Mountain West still have zero Chinese* residents — though there are fewer such counties than in 1960 — and now, all have at least one Black or Native American resident in the 2020 census. Despite the region’s growing, albeit slow, diversification, the exclusionary effects of sundown towns and the region’s broader racist past is still felt today.

Click one of the larger map points to read more about the past, present and future of sundown towns in the region from the Mountain West News Bureau’s series, “After the Sun Goes Down.”

Footnotes:
*2020 census redistricting data via NGHIS did not include racial breakdowns beyond broad categories like “Asian,” so 2019 estimates are used for the Chinese population only.

• 2020 data for Black and Native Americans include counts of those races alone or in combination with another race.

• White people in towns across the West prohibited other ethnic groups from living within city limits, but this map specifically looks at the three groups highlighted in this series.

• This visualization is inspired by “Table 1” on page 56 of the 2018 edition of James Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism


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