AP Street Journey: Racial tensions in America’s ‘sunset cities’


October 14, 2020 GMT

VIENNA, Unwell. (AP) — Ask round this time-battered Midwestern city, with its empty storefronts, dusty vintage retailers and companies which have migrated towards the interstate, and practically everybody will let you know that Black and white residents get alongside very well.

“Race isn’t an enormous drawback round right here,” stated Invoice Stevens, a white retired jail guard with a mild smile, ingesting beer with associates on a summer season afternoon. “By no means has been, actually.”

“We don’t have any hassle with racism,” stated a twice-widowed girl, additionally white, with a meticulously-kept yard and a white picket fence.

However in Vienna, as in a whole lot of largely white cities with comparable histories throughout America, a lot is left unstated. Round right here, virtually nobody talks brazenly concerning the violence that drove out Black residents practically 70 years in the past, and even whispers the title these locations got: “sunset cities.”

Except they’re among the many handful of Black residents.

“It’s actual unusual and peculiar out right here typically,” stated Nicholas Lewis, a stay-at-home father. “Each time I stroll round, eyes are on me.”


The foundations of a sunset city had been easy: Black folks had been allowed to go via in the course of the day or go in to buy or work, however they needed to be passed by dusk. Anybody breaking the principles may threat arrest, a beating or worse.

These cities had been an open secret of racial segregation that spilled over a lot of the nation for a minimum of a century, and nonetheless exist in varied varieties, enforced right this moment extra by custom and concern than by guidelines.

Throughout America, a few of these cities at the moment are brazenly wrestling with their histories, publicly acknowledging now-abandoned racist legal guidelines or holding racial justice protests. Some outdated sunset cities at the moment are built-in. However many additionally nonetheless have tiny Black communities residing alongside residents who don’t hassle hiding their chilly stares of disapproval.


This story was produced with the assist of the Pulitzer Heart on Disaster Reporting.


This a part of southern Illinois had a minimum of a half-dozen sunset cities. We got here right here on the second cease of The Related Press’ highway journey throughout America, a reporting journey that three of us are taking to take a look at how the U.S. has been shaken and formed by months of protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, an financial disaster and the looming November elections.

We needed to take a detailed take a look at systemic racism, making an attempt to know how one thing that’s so crushingly apparent to some folks might be totally invisible to others.

So we went to a longtime sunset city.

They had been referred to as “gray cities,” in some components of America, “sundown cities” in others. The phrases had been utilized by each Black and white folks.

Fairly often, particularly in well-to-do suburbs that didn’t wish to be referred to as racist, that they had no title in any respect. However they nonetheless saved out Black residents. There have been a whole lot of such cities, students say, reaching from New York to Oregon. Maybe 1000’s.

James Loewen, a historian who spent years finding out sunset cities, discovered them within the suburbs of Detroit, New York Metropolis and Chicago. He discovered them outdoors Los Angeles, in midwestern farming villages and in New England summer season cities.

Generally, the principles had been official insurance policies, with indicators on the fringe of cities warning Black folks to be passed by dusk. Extra typically, everybody – each Black and white – merely knew the unwritten guidelines.

On this space, close to the borders of each Missouri and Kentucky, younger Black folks had been raised to concentrate on which cities they need to keep away from.

“It was one thing that was recognized,” stated James Davis, 27, a Black truck driver from the close by city of Cairo, which is basically Black. “But in addition one thing that our mother and father taught us rising up.”

In locations nonetheless seen as sunset cities, many Black folks now comply with their very own guidelines: Keep away from them if potential, and lock your automotive doorways if you need to drive via. If you happen to cease for fuel, search for a well-lit fuel station with safety cameras.

So it’s in Vienna.

“Each time you come into city, otherwise you go right into a fuel station, or in a retailer, folks take a look at you,” stated Victoria Vaughn, a biracial 17-year-old who has been coming to Vienna for years to go to her white grandparents.

For extra within the sequence: In search of America

“You may really feel them taking a look at you, really feel them staring,” she stated. “I’ve by no means had anyone say something (racist) to me in Vienna, however I’ve positively felt the way in which they felt about me.”

She was in Vienna on a current Saturday to affix a rally organized after a bunch of Vienna Excessive Faculty college students created a social media account that included the phrase “hate Black folks” in its title. Vaughn and her grandmother had been among the many 50 or so individuals who turned out for the rally, together with about 25 counter-protesters.

At first issues went effectively. Protesters and counter-protesters prayed collectively. They talked calmly about race. However not for lengthy.

“Bullshit!” an older white man shouted at Vaughn, after she stated Black folks aren’t handled equally. “They get the identical because the white folks get!”

Vaughn, whose grandmother gently pulled her again from the confrontation with the offended older man, isn’t stunned that Vienna’s white residents don’t see racial points round them. The state of affairs is much extra delicate right this moment than when Black residents had been compelled out.

“Till you reside in a Black or brown individual’s physique you’re not going to know,” she stated. “It’s a must to know any person who lived it, or reside it your self, to really perceive.”


At this time it’s simply an overgrown discipline, vibrant inexperienced from current rains.

However 60 years in the past, there was a small assortment of homes alongside that stretch of seventh Road, the place the outer edges of Vienna bump up towards Little Cache Creek. Everybody who lived there was Black.

The violence erupted in August, 1954, after the arrest of a 31-year-old resident, Thomas Lee Latham, who was accused of brutally beating an aged white girl with a gentle drink bottle and making an attempt to rape her granddaughter.

“Vienna Negro Held on Cost of Assault With Try to Homicide,” the Vienna Occasions declared on its entrance web page after Latham was arrested, hours after the assault. The older girl died days later.

Just a few weeks after his arrest, Latham escaped from jail. Dozens of armed males took to the streets of Vienna and the encircling fields, backed up by bloodhounds and spotters in low-flying planes.

Inside hours, the cluster of Black houses alongside seventh Road had been ablaze, with smoke and flames rising above the city.

Per week or so later Latham gave himself up and pleaded responsible. Sooner or later after he surrendered, he was sentenced to 180 years in jail.

By then, the city’s Black residents had been gone.

“The Black neighborhood, from that time on, disappeared from Vienna,” stated Darrel Dexter, a historian and highschool trainer who has studied the violence of 1954.

Black folks had lived in and round Vienna for the reason that late 1820s or early 1830s, stated Dexter. However he estimates that after the fires, maybe 50 folks fled the city. The city later repaid Black residents for his or her misplaced houses, the Occasions reported, although there isn’t any indication anybody was ever prosecuted.

The 1950 census confirmed 54 Black folks residing in Vienna.

In 2000, it confirmed one.


A few blocks from the sphere the place Vienna’s Black neighborhood as soon as lived, down a slim dead-end road, a grandmother with pink fingernails and a simple chuckle watches over an prolonged household that spans a lot of America’s Black-white divide.

They don’t seem to be what you’d anticipate finding right here.

“It’s our sanctuary,” Maribeth Harris stated of the road. One in all her daughters lives subsequent door. One other lives throughout the road together with her boyfriend, Nicholas Lewis. Harris has custody of three grandkids whereas Lewis cares for the fourth, an 18-month-old in Spiderman pajamas on a current afternoon.

Harris, her husband and their daughters are white. Lewis is Black. The grandchildren are biracial.

“That is our personal little world down right here,” Harris stated, sighing earlier than she begins itemizing a number of the troubles the household has confronted. “They simply brush every little thing beneath the rug.”

There was the time one of many children was referred to as “burned toast” by a classmate. Or when an aged girl walked previous the household at a church dinner and loudly referred to as the kids “rattling half-breeds.”

There was the day the 10-year-old got here residence with a painful query: “Grandma, why do I’ve to be Black?”

She and her husband moved to Vienna about 10 years in the past from northern Illinois, chasing work and a less expensive price of residing. However together with her oldest grandson edging up on adolescence, she is aware of they need to go away quickly, earlier than they’ve to fret about things like confrontations with police.

“We wish to get out of right here,” she stated. “We’ve got to determine what’s good for them. And Vienna gained’t be good for them.”

Lewis joined the little enclave two years in the past, anticipating a brief go to however staying after his girlfriend, certainly one of Harris’ daughters, obtained pregnant.

He’s an unassuming man deeply in love along with his younger son, Nick. If he hasn’t felt the sting of outright racism in Vienna, he’s exhausted by how residents always watch him.

It’s sophisticated, he added, as a result of most individuals are pleasant as soon as they know him. However he additionally believes his household ought to go away.

“I don’t need my son raised down right here,” he stated. “I don’t need him out right here the place (white folks) are all he sees.”


They name themselves The Gunsmoke Membership.

Their clubhouse, a couple of miles outdoors Vienna, is an outdated fuel station, later changed into a comfort retailer and now a gathering place for a dozen or so associates. It’s half workshop, half bar, half casual retailer. However largely it’s a spot for a bunch of gray-haired males to go the time, drink gentle beer and relive a sliver of their childhoods on daily basis at midday with reruns of “Gunsmoke,” the TV present a couple of marshal whose steely nerve and Colt revolver saved the peace within the American West.

“That’s what fashioned this nation!,” stated Rick Warren, a 65-year-old in blue denims and a T-shirt, solely partially joking. “’Gunsmoke’ and John Wayne!”

It is a deeply conservative a part of the nation — 77 p.c of the county voted for President Donald Trump within the 2016 elections; simply 19 p.c went for Hillary Clinton. The Gunsmoke Membership displays that. They’re pro-Trump, anti-abortion, virulently towards gun management and mistrust the coronavirus guidelines and the media (although after warming up they had been very welcoming to us).

For them, race has turn out to be a difficulty twisted far past proportion, a cudgel for hypocritical liberals.

“Actually, we obtained a great nation, and I believe there’s in all probability some racism occurring. However I strive to not be racist,” Stevens, the retired jail guard, stated in his light drawl about this yr’s protests over racial injustice. “I believe they’re overreacting just a little bit.”

Warren is extra blunt, pounding his fist on a particle-board desk when he will get actually offended.

“I’ve had Black associates. I’ve had Black babysitters. I had Black individuals who took care of me via my childhood,” he stated. However the easygoing race relations of his youth had been misplaced, he stated, when President Lyndon Johnson, who pushed via a number of the most vital civil rights laws of the twentieth century, “got here alongside and turned it right into a bunch of racial bullshit!”

Then there’s former President Barack Obama, who speaks often about his white mom from Kansas and his Black father from Kenya, however who personally identifies as Black.

“He claims to be Black!” Warren stated, pounding the desk. “What the hell occurred to his white mama?”

One other of the boys later pulls again his shirt to point out that he now carries a .357-magnum revolver tucked into his denims, nervous concerning the unrest that sometimes flared throughout this yr’s racial protests.

Vienna’s personal violent historical past doesn’t come up till the boys are requested about it.

Stevens was about 10 when it occurred.

“After they burned them out that point, lots of them simply packed their baggage and went up north,” stated Stevens, who stated he hated to see Black classmates pushed from city.

“For a very long time there have been very only a few Blacks on this county, after which they began easing again in,” he stated. “We obtained a couple of extra households in right here now, however we get alongside good.”


What number of sunset cities stay? It’s hardly ever clear anymore. Brazenly racist legal guidelines at the moment are largely unlawful, and few cities need the infamy of being recognized for conserving out Black folks. Students typically rely now on demographic knowledge, trying rigorously at cities which have tiny Black populations.

Loewen, the historian, says the quantity is clearly dropping, categorizing many as “recovering” sunset cities, the place organized resistance to Black residents has ended however the racial divide can stay large. Vienna would virtually definitely fall into that class.

Dexter sees hope within the dozens of former sunset cities which have held racial justice protests, from the notorious Illinois sunset city of Anna to Hopewell, Michigan, as soon as residence to a strong Ku Klux Klan chief, which Black Detroit residents have lengthy prevented.

“I do suppose that there are many adjustments, and progress, being made right this moment. Largely I believe that comes from folks speaking concerning the situation,” he stated. “Folks didn’t wish to speak about it earlier than.”

However whereas authorized protections and altering mores have lessened the facility of sunset cities, there are nonetheless loads of them with well-known racist histories. Generally, cities know their violent previous retains racial minorities away. Generally, that historical past makes these minorities keep away from them.

“It’s not by legislation” that Black folks stay a tiny inhabitants in lots of cities, Dexter stated. “It’s by custom.”

Even in Vienna issues are altering.

However ever so slowly.

In 2010, the U.S. census stated there have been 1,434 folks in Vienna. Sixteen of them had been Black.

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