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Sundown Towns and the Value of Crowdsourced Data A Data Physicalization by Karyn Hladik-Brown

Across the continental United States, there are communities with histories of exclusion of African Americans, as well as other minoritized groups, through zoning, police intimidation, and threats of mob violence. These communities are widely referred to as Sundown Towns, in reference to signs that were commonly erected outside town, city, or county limits that featured the phrase, “[N-word], don’t let the sun set on you in ____.”

Despite the fact that thousands of Sundown Towns have, or still do, exist in the United States, it is difficult to find concrete data on where they were and what white citizens of those towns did. This is generally because knowledge of Sundown Towns was often spread orally, through Black folks warning each other and the word eventually spreading; a more formalized version of this process can be seen in Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for Black travelers that was created through crowdsourced anecdotes.

Image of the 1946 edition of Green's "The Negro Motorist Green Book" courtesy of The Library of Congress. View scans of the entire text here.

However, despite the oral nature and lack of confirmed data on Sundown Towns, sociologist and historian James W. Loewen (who is known for his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong) created an online database of suspected and confirmed Sundown Towns. While his own research contributed to some of the towns that are included in the database, it largely relies on crowdsourced data, as well as oral histories.

I first heard about this database when I was in high school, and it had stuck with me. I had already been somewhat aware of Sundown Towns, though I never knew they had a formal name. My dad is a Black man, and I had grown up seeing him be on edge whenever we traveled, especially when we would go to new places. Once, while driving in South Carolina, my dad had my mom and me scope out the inside of a restaurant for other Black folks before my dad would even get out of the car.

After finding Loewen's data set, I became increasingly frustrated with the fact that his website was the only place someone could find a compilation of Sundown Towns across the country. These are places that are still talked about and still exist today — so why aren't there more directories of where these places are?

To physicalize this data, I took a road atlas and used white-out to remove every town, city, county, and community that was included in Loewen’s list as a confirmed or probable Sundown Town. Not every town in Loewen's dataset is represented. Some of the places no longer exist, or there were typos in the database. And even though I used the most detailed atlas I could find (for city limits and county borders), some towns were not labeled in the atlas. For the sake of accuracy, I decided not to estimate locations for places not labeled.

Through this physicalization, I hope to show viewers the danger that has and continues to exist for Black and other minoritized travelers across the United States, as well to show the vast areas of land in the U.S. that have been made unaccessible to members of minoritized groups.

Not every Sundown Town is represented here — many of them are considered too small to appear on this map.
Sundown Towns in North Carolina.

To accompany the pictures and video on this page, I also created an annotated Google Map featuring the Sundown Towns from my dataset. If Loewen's data set also included information on how members of minoritized groups were excluded, I included that information in the place's description.

Interested in learning more about Sundown Towns? I recommend exploring the following sources:

Beaujot, A. (2018). Sun Up in a Sundown Town: Public History, Private Memory, and Racism in a Small City. The Public Historian, 40(2), 43-68. https://doi-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1525/tph.2018.40.2.43

Esquibel, E. (2011). Performing race, performing history: Oral histories of sundown towns in southern Illinois (Publication No. 3460301). [Doctoral dissertation, Southern Illinois University Carbondale]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/dissertations-theses/performing-race-history-oral-histories-sundown/docview/876935191/se-2?accountid=14244

Giorgio, G. A. (2017). Whitewashing the Past: A KKK Display in a Small Rural Midwestern Town. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(2), 134–136. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800416629697

Jerkins, M. (2020, July 29). Think Sundown Towns Are a Thing of the Past? Think Again. Medium. Retrieved from https://gen.medium.com/think-sundown-towns-are-a-thing-of-the-past-think-again-21b9e025157b

McConnell, E. D., & Miraftab, F. (2009). Sundown town to 'little Mexico: Old-timers and newcomers in an American small town. Rural Sociology, 74(4), 605-629. http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1526/003601109789864044

O’Connell, H. A. (2019). Historical Shadows: The Links between Sundown Towns and Contemporary Black–White Inequality. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5(3), 311–325. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649218761979

Shuler, J. (2017, March 27). ‘Sundown Towns’: Midwest confronts its complicated racial legacy. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2017/0327/Sundown-towns-Midwest-confronts-its-complicated-racial-legacy

Sullivan, T. & Nasir, N. (2020, October 14). AP Road Trip: Racial tensions in America’s ‘sundown towns.’ AP News. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-race-and-ethnicity-violence-db28a9aaa3b800d91b65dc11a6b12c4c

Taylor, C. (2016, November 3). The Roots of Route 66. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/the-roots-of-route-66/506255/

Special Thanks to Dylan Wilson for assisting with filming, as well as accompanying me to the store to buy an extreme amount of white-out; and to Grace Gittelman, for providing artistic guidance.