Starting around the early 1890s, lasting until the late 1960s, thousands of American towns were established for whites only. These municipalities ranged from the small, with a population of a few hundred, to the surprisingly large, with tens of thousands. Race relations, after the gains of the Civil War, worsened. Black Americans lost their ability to vote in the South and were no longer allowed to use the same spaces as whites. While they never lost their right to vote in the North, they did lose the right to live in many towns, suburbs, and even whole counties. Anti-black sentiments lead to the creation of sundown towns, also known as sunset or grey towns.
“The facts about sundown towns prove hard for many people to believe, partly because high school textbooks in American history present a nation that has always been getting better, in everything from methods of transportation to race relations.”James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns
The assumption of constant, forward progress has blinded many to the reality that sometimes things got worse. Race relations deteriorated during the 1890s to 1930s, this time period is frequently referred to as the nadir of race relations (“nadir” meaning lowest point or point of greatest adversity or despair). Many sundown towns were created from towns that had been integrated. Some towns even touting stories of previously positive interactions between whites and POC. For example, Stockton, MO, had integrated social gatherings, like their large annual 4th of July picnic, until some now long forgotten event caused a rift. Other towns had riots aimed at driving out POC.
One such place, Forsyth County, Georgia, began with the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man one evening in September 1912. The following morning the news had spread and white Forsyth was in an uproar. A team of bloodhounds and a posse of white men were assembled, the men deputized on the spot. Headed by Sheriff William Reid, a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, they rode in search of the attacker. They knocked doors demanding to speak to each family of black field hands and sharecroppers.
The next day Sheriff Reid, and his deputy Gay Lummus, arrested and jailed one black teen and four “accomplices”. The teen, Toney Howell, was the nephew of a well respected residents of Cumming, a town in Forsyth County. The others were all single, illiterate, and lived in the area in which the attack had happened. What stood out about Toney was that he was not from Forsyth but the neighboring Milton County making him unknown, and therefore conspicuous. He was tried and convicted of the rape in February of the following year. A black preacher, Reverend Smith, was beaten near to death by a mob of white men after he commented on “so much trouble being caused on account of a sorry white woman.” What followed these events was the racial cleansing of Forsyth County by bands of white “night riders” who coordinated a campaign of terror and arson. Ultimately, they drove out the county’s over 1,000 black residents. White residents swooped in to claim the now “abandoned” lands and the memory of black Forsyth was forgotten as locals kept Forsyth “all white” well into the 1990s. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
To be continued…
Loewen, James W. 2018. Sundown Towns. 2nd ed. New York: The New Press.
Phillips, P. (2016). Blood at the Root. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.