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AP Road Trip: Racial tensions in America’s ‘sunset cities’

VIENNA, Ill. (AP) – Ask round this time-battered Midwestern city, with its empty storefronts, dusty vintage retailers and companies which have migrated towards the interstate, and almost everybody will inform you that Black and white residents get alongside rather well.

“Race isn’t a big problem around here,” mentioned Bill Stevens, a white retired pri-son guard with a delicate smile, consuming beer with mates on a summer time afternoon. “Never has been, really.”

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

But in Vienna, as in lots of of largely white cities with comparable histories throughout America, a lot is left unstated. Around right here, nearly nobody talks brazenly in regards to the violence that drove out Black residents almost 70 years in the past, and even whispers the identify these locations got: “sundown towns.”

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

“It’s real strange and weird out here sometimes,” mentioned Nicholas Lewis, a stay-at-home father. “Every time I walk around, eyes are on me.”


The guidelines of a sunset city had been easy: Black individuals had been allowed to move by way of in the course of the day or go in to buy or work, however they needed to be passed by dusk. Anyone breaking the foundations may danger arrest, a beating or worse.

These cities had been an open secret of racial segregation that spilled over a lot of the nation for at the very least a century, and nonetheless exist in numerous kinds, enforced at this time extra by custom and worry than by guidelines.

Across 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 Some outdated sunset cities at the moment are built-in. But many additionally nonetheless have tiny Black communities residing alongside residents who don’t trouble hiding their chilly stares of disapproval.


This story was produced with the assist of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


This a part of southern Illinois had at the very least a half-dozen sunset cities. We got here right here on the second cease of The Associated Press’ street 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 an in depth take a look at systemic racism, attempting to know how one thing that’s so crushingly apparent to some individuals could be completely invisible to others.

So we went to a longtime sunset city.

They had been referred to as “grey towns,” in some components of America, “sunset towns” in others. The phrases had been utilized by each Black and white individuals.

Very typically, particularly in well-to-do suburbs that didn’t need to be generally known as racist, that they had no identify in any respect. But they nonetheless stored out Black residents. There had been lots of of such cities, students say, reaching from New York to Oregon. Perhaps hundreds.

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

Sometimes, the foundations had been official insurance policies, with indicators on the fringe of cities warning Black individuals to be passed by dusk. More typically, everybody – each Black and white – merely knew the unwritten guidelines.

In this space, close to the borders of each Missouri and Kentucky, younger Black individuals had been raised to pay attention to which cities they need to keep away from.

“It was something that was known,” mentioned James Davis, 27, a Black truck driver from the close by city of Cairo, which is essentially Black. “But also something that our parents taught us growing up.”

In locations nonetheless seen as sunset cities, many Black individuals now observe their very own guidelines: Avoid them if attainable, and lock your automobile doorways if it’s important to drive by way of. If you cease for gasoline, search for a well-lit gasoline station with safety cameras.

So it’s in Vienna.

“Every time you come into town, or you go into a gas station, or in a store, people look at you,” mentioned Victoria Vaughn, a biracial 17-year-old who has been coming to Vienna for years to go to her white grandparents.

“You can feel them looking at you, feel them staring,” she mentioned. “I’ve never had anybody say anything (racist) to me in Vienna, but I’ve definitely felt the way they felt about me.”

She was in Vienna on a current Saturday to affix a rally organized after a bunch of Vienna High School college students created a social media account that included the phrase “hate Black people” 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. But not for lengthy.

“Bullshit!” an older white man shouted at Vaughn, after she mentioned Black individuals aren’t handled equally. “They get the same as the white people get!”

Vaughn, whose grandmother gently pulled her again from the confrontation with the offended older man, isn’t shocked that Vienna’s white residents don’t see racial points round them. The scenario is much extra refined at this time than when Black residents had been pressured out.

“Until you live in a Black or brown person’s body you’re not going to understand,” she mentioned. “You have to know somebody who lived it, or live it yourself, to truly understand.”


Today it’s simply an overgrown subject, vibrant inexperienced from current rains.

But 60 years in the past, there was a small assortment of homes alongside that stretch of seventh Street, the place the outer edges of Vienna bump up in opposition to Little Cache Creek. Everyone 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 lady with a mushy drink bottle and attempting to rape her granddaughter.

“Vienna Negro Held on Charge of Assault With Attempt to mur-der,” the Vienna Times declared on its entrance web page after Latham was arrested, hours after the at-tack. The older lady died days later.

A couple of weeks after his arrest, Latham escaped from ja-il. Dozens of armed males took to the streets of Vienna and the encompassing fields, backed up by bloodhounds and spotters in low-flying planes.

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

Every week or so later Latham gave himself up and pleaded responsible. One day after he surrendered, he was sentenced to 180 years in pri-son.

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

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

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

The 1950 census confirmed 54 Black individuals residing in Vienna.

In 2000, it confirmed one.


A few blocks from the sector the place Vienna’s Black group as soon as lived, down a slim de-ad-end avenue, a grandmother with pink fingernails and a simple snort watches over an prolonged household that spans a lot of America’s Black-white divide.

They are usually not what you’d anticipate finding right here.

“It’s our sanctuary,” Maribeth Harris mentioned of the road. One of her daughters lives subsequent door. Another lives throughout the road along 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.

“This is our own little world down here,” Harris mentioned, sighing earlier than she begins itemizing a number of the troubles the household has confronted. “They just brush everything under the rug.”

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

There was the day the 10-year-old got here house with a painful query: “Grandma, why do I have 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 value of residing. But along 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 want to get out of here,” she mentioned. “We have to figure out what’s good for them. And Vienna won’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, considered one of Harris’ daughters, bought pregnant.

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

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

“I don’t want my son raised down here,” he mentioned. “I don’t want him out here where (white people) are all he sees.”


They name themselves The Gunsmoke Club.

Their clubhouse, a number of miles outdoors Vienna, is an outdated gasoline station, later become a comfort retailer and now a gathering place for a dozen or so mates. It’s half workshop, half bar, half casual retailer. But largely it’s a spot for a bunch of gray-haired males to move the time, drink mild beer and relive a sliver of their childhoods every single day at midday with reruns of “Gunsmoke,” the TV present a couple of marshal whose steely nerve and Colt revolver stored the peace in the American West.

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

This is a deeply conservative a part of the nation – 77 % of the county voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 elections; simply 19 % went for Hillary Clinton. The Gunsmoke Club displays that. They are pro-Trump, anti-abor-tion, virulently in opposition to 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 develop into a problem twisted far past proportion, a cudgel for hypocritical liberals.

“Really, we got a good country, and I think there is probably some racism going on. But I try not to be racist,” Stevens, the retired pri-son guard, mentioned in his mild drawl about this 12 months’s protests over racial injustice. “I think they’re overreacting 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 friends. I’ve had Black babysitters. I had Black people who took care of me through my childhood,” he mentioned. But the easygoing race relations of his youth had been misplaced, he mentioned, when President Lyndon Johnson, who pushed by way of a number of the most vital civil rights laws of the twentieth century, “came along and turned it into a bunch of racial bullshit!”

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

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

Another of the boys later pulls again his shirt to indicate that he now carries a .357-magnum revolver tucked into his denims, frightened in regards to the unrest that often flared throughout this 12 months’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.

“When they burned them out that time, a lot of them just packed their bags and went up north,” mentioned Stevens, who mentioned he hated to see Black classmates pushed from city.

“For a long time there were very very few Blacks in this county, and then they started easing back in,” he mentioned. “We got a few more families in here now, but we get along good.”


How many sunset cities stay? It’s not often clear anymore. Openly racist legal guidelines at the moment are largely unlawful, and few cities need the infamy of being recognized for maintaining out Black individuals. Scholars typically rely now on demographic information, wanting 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 broad. Vienna would nearly definitely fall into that class.

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

“I do think that there are lots of changes, and progress, being made today. Mostly I think that comes from people talking about the issue,” he mentioned. “People didn’t want to talk about it before.”

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

“It’s not by law” that Black individuals stay a tiny inhabitants in many cities, Dexter mentioned. “It’s by tradition.”

Even in Vienna issues are altering.

But ever so slowly.

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

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