The California towns where Blacks feared sundown

From left: Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in "Lovecraft Country."
(Elizabeth Morris/HBO)

“Sundown towns,” where Blacks weren’t welcome after dark, existed across the nation, including many in California


In the Aug. 16 premiere of the HBO show “Lovecraft Country,” created by Misha Green and based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, the main characters drive past a sign that reads “[N-word]s, don’t let the sun set on you here. Understand?”

Towns that banned African Americans in the mid-20th century would, either formally or informally, put up intimidating signs like that at the town limits to remind Blacks passing through that they were not welcome.

These places, known commonly as “sundown towns,” existed across the nation. Many of them were here in California, too.

The memory of sundown towns re-entered our collective cultural conscience recently as incidents of police brutality have pushed people to speak out against racism. The book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” written by sociologist James W. Loewen, was originally published in 2005. In the preface of the re-printed 2018 edition, Loewen noted that while sundown towns are on the decline, some former sundown towns have shifted from overt to systemic racism through policies such as “Driving While Black policing.” He cites the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., as an example.

There is widespread misconception that sundown towns were mostly concentrated in the Deep South and Midwest, as depicted in Lovecraft Country’s first episode of the series, which was set along the highway route from Chicago to Massachusetts.

But similar numbers of sundown towns existed in the West as well, including in California up until the mid-20th century. The national sundown town database on Loewen’s website lists 112 possible sundown towns in California. These towns are categorized on the website as either possible, probable, or surely, as it is difficult to categorize “sundown towns” because of varying degrees of explicitness in their approaches to discouraging African American and other non-White visitors.

California cities classified as “surely” sundown towns on Loewen’s website include Brea, Chico, Culver City, El Segundo, Fresno, Glendale, Hawthorne, La Jolla, Palmdale, San Marino and Taft. Cities that are now majority Black and Brown, including Compton and Inglewood in Southern California, previously barred Black residents. The list also includes some entire counties as surely sundown in the past.

This article is published in partnership with Black & Magazine. To read the rest of the story, please visit the Black & Magazine website.