By Tim Sullivan & Noreen Nasir
Ask around this time-battered Midwestern town, with its empty storefronts, dusty antique shops and businesses that have migrated toward the interstate, and nearly everyone will tell you that Black and white residents get along really well.
“Race isn’t a big problem around here,” said Bill Stevens, a white retired prison guard with a gentle smile, drinking beer with friends on a summer afternoon. “Never has been, really.”
“We don’t have any trouble with racism,” said a twice-widowed woman, also white, with a meticulously-kept yard and a white picket fence.
But in Vienna, as in hundreds of mostly white towns with similar histories across America, much is left unspoken. Around here, almost no one talks openly about the violence that drove out Black residents nearly 70 years ago, or even whispers the name these places were given: “sundown towns.”
Unless they’re among the handful of Black residents.
“It’s real strange and weird out here sometimes,” said Nicholas Lewis, a stay-at-home father. “Every time I walk around, eyes are on me.”
The rules of a sundown town were simple: Black people were allowed to pass through during the day or go in to shop or work, but they had to be gone by nightfall. Anyone breaking the rules could risk arrest, a beating or worse.
These towns were an open secret of racial segregation that spilled over much of the nation for at least a century, and still exist in various forms, enforced today more by tradition and fear than by rules.
Across America, some of these towns are now openly wrestling with their histories, publicly acknowledging now-abandoned racist laws or holding racial justice protests. Some old sundown towns are now integrated. But many also still have tiny Black communities living alongside residents who don’t bother hiding their cold stares of disapproval.
Picture: John Phelan / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)