Christopher Hayes felt the eyes on his back as he walked down Harrison Street toward the Alex Theatre with his white girlfriend and her children.
“Living in Alex and knowing I was the only black person in town wasn’t a comfortable situation,” he said. “It was different walking to the store and to the park and to the library.”
In 2011, when the black Indianapolis native moved to Madison County’s third-largest city to live with his girlfriend, he wasn’t aware that it could have a reputation as a “sundown town.” But he isn’t surprised.
Sundown towns, counties and suburbs are places where by law, by custom or by force it is understood that black people are not only unwelcome but possibly in physical danger if they stay past dusk. Many such towns, which reportedly included Alexandria and Elwood, are reputed to have once had signs at their city limits threatening something like “N—, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You Here.”
One Indiana town, however, took an unprecedented step a little more than a year ago this month toward separating itself from its sundown past. Goshen’s city council on March 17, 2015, adopted a resolution acknowledging and apologizing for its past policy of exclusion.
Hayes is among African Americans who share contemporary experiences in Madison County towns with a sundown past.
Uncomfortable inviting his family and friends to his home or frequenting Alexandria’s restaurants — one of which he heard was a hangout for white supremacists — Hayes, 30, worked and socialized primarily in Anderson.
“If it came to hanging out, I’d rather venture out than invite them there,” Hayes said. “Alex was a passing-through kind of town for the black people I know, often on their way to Marion. No one stopped and stayed.”
Hayes said he believed the reaction he received as he walked through Alexandria was rooted more in fear than in hate. A year and a half later, Hayes moved to Anderson and later back to Indianapolis.
“I couldn’t wait to get out,” he said of living in Alexandria. “It’s not as blatant, but more behind the scenes. I can’t really picture Alexandria like, ‘Oh, I want to move back there.’ ”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map, there are no known white supremacist groups currently headquartered in Madison County. However, the presence of official white supremacist organizations is not necessary to be a sundown town, according to sociologist and historian Dr. James W. Loewen, author of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.”
Anatomy of a sundown town
Communities no longer have signs warning black people to stay away. Still, Loewen said, because of a variety of factors, he would classify some of the all-white or nearly all-white communities of Madison County as “likely” sundown towns.
Though the occasional sundown town can be found in the southern United States, they are primarily a northern phenomenon, said Loewen, a native of Illinois best known for “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” a critically acclaimed re-framing of American history with a minority point of view.
“I was completely flabbergasted to learn the towns that are white by accident are few and far between,” the Washington, D.C., resident said.
By Loewen’s definition, any town that has fewer than 10 black people per 10,000 population, is a sundown town. In the past, some had signs, but because of federal laws against discrimination, contemporary sundown towns are more likely to have policies and cultural practices that discourage settlement by minorities, especially African-Americans, he said.
“I have discovered many sundown towns that allow one family, one household and sometimes two,” he said. “Many believe if they have even one black family that allows them, to say, bizarrely, ‘We aren’t racist. See, we’ve got the Smiths. The reasons we keep out the rest of them is because they aren’t good people.’”
In a 1989 Herald Bulletin article, for instance, 80-year-old Anderson resident Daisy Brown recalled growing up at 906 W. Jefferson St. in Alexandria, where her family lived for 32 years, the “only colored family in the neighborhood.”
“We used to go to the show and we would have to sit in the back,” she recalled.
The movie theater wasn’t the only place where the family experienced less than the usual customer service.
“If we wanted to eat a sandwich, we would have to carry it out,” she said of her experience at local restaurants.
In some instances, Loewen said, a black family in the past might have been protected by a white family because it was to the white family’s advantage, such as in the case of servants.
Even today, Loewen is suspicious of a census that shows a higher than average number of black men living in a community. Usually, this indicates the presence of a prison, and inmates really shouldn’t be counted as residents, he contends.
Wandering into hostile territory
Most sundown towns developed between 1890 and 1940, a period dubbed the “nadir” or lowest point of race relations in the U.S., Loewen said. In 1890, he said, only 119 of the nation’s thousands of counties did not have any black residents, but by 1930, about 700 counties nationwide had fewer than 10 black residents.
At their peak in 1970 – in spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – about 10,000 sundown towns blemished the countryside nationwide, Loewen said.
“Many towns have an incident in the past, some rape that allegedly happened or some burglary in the 1800s. At that time, they drove out the entire black population,” he explained.
Between 1936 and 1966, Harlem, N.Y., civic leader Victor Green published The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, listing cities with hotels, tourist homes and restaurants that accommodated blacks. The guide steered travelers toward safe havens. In the 1941 through 1949 editions, only one tavern was named in Madison County: the Terrance Café at 1411 Madison Ave. By 1950, listings were mentioned in Muncie, Kokomo and Marion. But there were none in Madison County.
The prevailing attitude of people in sundown towns is that black people are inferior, said Loewen, who is white. In addition, many sundown town residents believe black people are less intelligent and generally criminal in nature, he said.
“Once you’ve convinced yourselves of that, why would you want to admit these people to your community?” he asked.
Martinsville in Morgan County is Indiana’s poster child for sundown towns, Loewen said.
“Martinsville has a reputation as an all-white town hostile to blacks, largely due to the 1968 murder of 21-year-old Carol Jenkins, a black woman,” according to the website on sundown towns maintained by Loewen. Jenkins was selling encyclopedias after dark when she was brutally stabbed and left to die on Morgan Street.
Loewen’s inquiry into sundown towns led him to suspect that as many as 500 Indiana communities fit the description. Further investigation revealed to Loewen that at least 95 of those towns, including Elwood, had official or unofficial racial policies or ordinances barring black people from settling there.
In fact, Loewen said he has yet to discover an all-white Indiana town that, upon his on-site investigation, failed to confirm as a sundown town.
Sundown and the Ku Klux Klan
The presence of a white supremacist group, such as the KKK, has little bearing on whether a town is a sundown town, Loewen said.
The KKK “does a great job of recruiting in sundown towns, but (the town is) already sundown,” he said.
However, Loewen said most sundown towns had enforcers, about 2 percent of young men in their teens and early 20s, who felt entitled to enforce anti-black policies.
In Elwood, those enforcers may have been the members of the Ku Klux Klan.
According to a Sept. 27, 1979, article in the Elwood Call Leader newspaper, an unidentified mother of four, including three children of white, black and Native American ancestry, was terrorized with a cross burning and by Klansmen in open-faced hoods.
One day she reported receiving a frightening phone call.
“‘This is the Ku Klux Klan,’ said a man’s voice, ‘Get those _ _ _ kids out of town,’” The article read.
“It has upset me quite a bit mostly because I thought the attitudes of people in this town had changed enough to where they could accept my kids because they are more white children than they are anything else. Most people don’t even realize that they were mixed until it came out in the paper that there was a cross burning,” said the woman, identified as an Elwood native.
In an Oct. 10, 1979, article, however, Grand Dragon William Scott, of Elwood, denied the KKK’s involvement in the incident. He said the reports were intended to discredit the organization.
Alexandria Mayor Ron Richardson recalls visiting his father’s family in Elwood as a child and seeing a cross burning at the intersection of state roads 28 and 37.
“As a young police officer, I saw hooded Klansmen handing out literature at the intersection,” the former Madison County sheriff said. And as a major with the sheriff’s department, Richardson said he provided public safety security at a Klan rally.
City was a sundown town — ‘no doubt’
Of all the communities in Madison County, Elwood is the one most associated with being a sundown town.
“Elwood was a sundown town. There is no doubt,” Loewen said. “Elwood had signs, and we even had newspaper stories.”
An August 1897 article in the Connersville Daily Examiner, for instance, contained a short item about some unidentified black people who moved to Elwood.
“On numerous occasions in the past, Negro families have come here to reside, but owing to extreme indifference displayed toward them they did not find life in Elwood endurable and left,” the article said.
An Anderson native, Renita Lark, 45, followed her husband, the late Joseph Parson, to Elwood in 2000 when he went there to work at Red Gold. She describes her experience as a mixture of good and bad.
She recalls her grandfather, Joseph Hopgood, who lived in Anderson, telling her about the sign at the Elwood city limits that warned black visitors not to stay past sundown.
“People still talk about it today,” she said.
The signs may be gone, but the reputation isn’t, Lark said. That past, however distant, was enough to keep most of Lark’s family in Anderson from ever visiting her in Elwood. And some of her family members expressed their fears of retaliation for sharing her story with The Herald Bulletin.
“A lot of my family knows about it,” she said. “They wouldn’t come to see me at one time because they was scared.”
Lark believes hers was the only black family in town at the time they lived on South A Street in Elwood. She said her neighbors across the street hung a Confederate flag that spanned the front of the house, and her two children, Deon and Destiny, were called monkeys by children at school.
“It wasn’t there when we moved there, and all of a sudden, there was a big old flag outside the house,” she said.
The children living in that house, however, eventually were allowed to befriend her children.
One time, as Lark left the doctor’s office, a white van came to a screeching halt in front of her. The side door slid open, and one of the four men inside told her they knew where she lived and they were going to burn her house down, she recalled.
“I had to be escorted out the doctor’s office because I was getting threats,” she said.
However, after about a year, Lark said, the animosity abated as residents began to recognize her and her family. For instance, her neighbors would warn her when the KKK planned a rally.
“They used to call us and say, ‘Don’t come outside because they’re having a rally. If you need something, call us,’” she said.
After the birth of her daughter, Lark said, she received a phone call from someone at the video store telling her to come by. They had a gift basket of baby items for her.
And as the family struggled amid the terminal illness of Lark’s husband, residents came forward to help with the rent and with food.
After the death of her husband, Lark moved back to Anderson so she could have more family support. But she said she sometimes longs for the peace and quiet she eventually experienced in Elwood.
Elwood seeks image rehabilitation
Mayor Todd Jones, a lifelong resident of Elwood, recently told The Herald Bulletin he was totally unaware of Elwood’s reputation as a sundown town. Indeed, he said he had no idea what a sundown town was, though he had heard rumors of the city’s KKK past.
“When the leader of a city doesn’t know what ‘sundown town’ means, that should tell you how things have changed,” Jones said. “Maybe it’s because I don’t have those beliefs and I am not associated with anything like that … I don’t see any of that in my day-to-day engagements of running this city. I don’t see any negativity whatsoever in our community.”
Jones said racism and segregation never were values in his family, and they aren’t values he passes down to his daughters.
“I never paid attention whether you were black, white or Hispanic. I grew up in a household where it didn’t matter the color of your skin,” he said. “There’s that old saying, “If you’re nice to me, I’m nice to you.’ That’s the way I live my life.”
Jones said there is no underground culture in Elwood that supports the idea of remaining an all-white community.
“I can assure you there would not be any boycotting of employers or service. There is not that kind of mentality in this community,” he said. “Whatever previous history, compared to the mentality now, is obviously different.”
In fact, Jones is quick to point out that President Barack Obama carried Elwood, a traditional Democrat stronghold, with a vote of about 70 percent in the 2008 general election. That, he said, is an indication of how the mentality of Elwood’s residents has changed.
The city of Elwood has its eye on future growth and development, Jones said. The exclusionary practices of the past have no place in the modern city, he added.
“The only way you can have growth and development is by embracing everyone,” he said. “We look forward to diversity. Elwood is a diverse, open town with open arms for everyone.”
Reconciling a shadowy past
Indeed, Loewen agrees Elwood is one of the few Indiana communities that has taken significant steps toward shedding its reputation as a sundown town.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, of Elwood’s population of 9,737, five people were black. By 2010, 18 of 8,614 were black.
Leaders and residents in many locales that were sundown towns are eager to recast their communities, Loewen said. Some genuinely want to improve race relations, he said. In many cases, though, they don’t want their community to be identified as a sundown town, but they still want to discourage minorities from moving in, Loewen said.
He often receives emails from people who insist their community is no longer a sundown town. These people are often disappointed when he presents evidence that indicates otherwise.
In fact, there appears to be a difference of perception about the existence of sundown towns in Madison County, depending on whether the person asked is black or white. Several residents of both races were interviewed for this report.
Anderson-Madison County NAACP President James Burgess, for instance, said that some of the written and unwritten rules of all-white and mostly white towns remain in force.
“A lot of African-Americans don’t know about sundown towns. They don’t know these things still exist,” he said.
Burgess said he’s known of many black individuals and families who thought things had changed enough so they would feel comfortable living in mostly white towns.
“Yes, they feel comfortable, and then they get upset when they ain’t comfortable,” he said.
Alexandria Mayor Richardson said he believes none of the towns in Madison County still bears the reputation as a sundown town.
“Since I was a child till now, I think that has changed drastically. All minorities are welcome in all communities, and we’ve seen that all over the county, in my opinion,” he said.
In addition to growing its minority population, Loewen said, every sundown town needs to do three things to overcome its past: acknowledge it, apologize for it and state undeniably that it no longer discriminates.
The mayors of Elwood and Alexandria each said they might be willing to go as far as the city of Goshen did and offer resolutions rejecting their cities’ pasts as sundown towns.
“If it’s part of Elwood’s lingering reputation, we will do everything to rectify that,” said Elwood’s Jones.
“I would definitely be willing to explore that and get some other people in our community involved and make sure we verify that Alexandria indeed was a sundown town,” Richardson said.
But actions also speak louder than words when it comes to attracting newcomers to improve diversity, Loewen said. Some communities may need to be active in recruiting minority police officers, teachers and health workers. Some might need to go as far as hiring a civil rights ombudsman or human relations board to hear complaints, he said.
Though the real impact has not yet been studied, Loewen said, Goshen took a significant step with its 2015 resolution distancing itself from its sundown past.
“We can say this for sure: It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I think every sundown town in Indiana ought to take that step.”