Route 66 News

Should Route 66 towns that were sundown towns apologize?

The above image is a postcard of the long-gone Royce Cafe along Route 66 in Edmond, Okla., from the 1930s or ’40s. Do you see anything different about it?

If you’re not spotting it, here’s a close-up the unusual part:

The “6,000 Live Citizens — No Negroes” part of the postcard was a symptom that Edmond operated as a sundown town for many years. If you’re not familiar with the term, sundown towns were purposely all-white and prohibited black people from being in city limits after sundown. If an African-American ended up being in a sundown town at nightfall, he or she often was expelled by local law enforcement or by vigilantes.

Author Christopher P. Lehman, an African-American and a former Edmond resident, recently wrote about Edmond in an opinion piece in the Oklahoma Gazette: “Should a Former Sundown Town Apologize?” Lehman provided context:

No African-American attended school there until 1974, and no African-American family lived there until 1976.

When I arrived with my family in Edmond in 1976, I was two years old. For a long time, I was the only African-American boy and one of two African-Americans in my grade in elementary school. I grew up thinking that I was a pioneer, one of the first African-American boys to do this in Edmond or that in Edmond.

It never dawned on me that the reason I was often the first was because of all the other African-Americans before me who wanted to live in Edmond but could not.

Lehman said Edmond prohibited African-Americans by ordinance from the city limits for generations. Replying to a follow-up email, Lehman said:

I contacted Edmond’s historical society a few years ago, and its staff mentioned an ordinance. The ordinance may even be in the archive there. The staff claimed that the city revoked the ordinance in 1972, but no realtor would show homes to my parents four years later (at least, not at first).

Deborah Baker, a curator at the Edmond Historical Society & Museum, said she was not aware of a sundown ordinance. “I have seen other references in our files to African Americans being asked to leave at different points in the town history,” she said in an email.

Lehman also referred to these links about Edmond’s sundown past here and here.

Edmond’s discrimination persisted about a decade after the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964. This is not ancient history, but living memory.

Edmond wasn’t the only sundown town on Route 66. According to James Loewen, who wrote a book about the subject, evidence strongly suggests these cities or areas on the Mother Road once were sundown towns:

  • Illinois: Berwyn, Cicero, Carlinville, Dwight, Gillespie, Girard, Granite City, Lexington, Madison, Mount Olive, Plainfield, Romeoville, Sherman, Staunton, Towanda, Virden, Williamsville.
  • Missouri: Carterville, Cuba, Marshfield, Shrewsbury, St. Clair, St. James, Sullivan, Webb City.
  • Oklahoma: Commerce, Edmond, Erick, Sapulpa.
  • Texas: Shamrock, Wheeler County.
  • New Mexico: Bernalillo.
  • Arizona: Kingman.
  • California: Arcadia, Azusa, Burbank, Fontana, Pasadena, South Pasadena.

The list proves historically significant because these were towns where African-Americans traveling Route 66 could not stay for the night. Sundown towns became a primary reason “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was published from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. Such history is why older black people often aren’t nostalgic about Route 66.

Lehman asks that Edmond apologize for its past:

An apology from Edmond’s mayor or its city legislature or both would be a significant, meaningful gesture because cities have long-lasting reputations. […] Edmond’s population has diversified since 1976, but its reputation and its history have yet to be fully addressed by the city government itself, the government that kept out African-Americans.

An apology would be unusual and different but invaluable and healing.

If Edmond were to be the first city or town in Oklahoma to apologize for its “sundown” past, it would set a template for the rest of the state. Sometimes being the first can be a good thing.

One could expand that request for apologies from other former sundown towns on Route 66. Instead of denying the past, acknowledging it could prove valuable for potential Route 66 tourists — especially older black people who felt unwelcome decades ago.

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Should Route 66 towns that were sundown towns apologize?

  1. Gordon Radford

    Are any of these towns “denying” what happened? And unfortunately, I’m sure it was not just these towns along Route 66…Perhaps these are the towns that had “official” policies…..I bet many others had their own policies. And not just along Route 66, but everywhere. Sad, horrible, but true.

    But asking for public apologies from local officials who had absolutely nothing to do with the past could only open up these communities for potential litigation. I doubt that a few words would spark tourism, yet quite possibly could do more harm than good.

  2. Crocodile Lile

    The past is past, it’s history, leave it alone, but let it remind us how small minded our other generations were. I was raised in a Sundown town as most small towns in the Texas Panhandle were.

  3. Jim Farber

    A most interesting and important posting. I just wanted to say that a gallery will be devoted to this subject in the Autry exhibit including an actual “White’s Only” and “sundown town” signs as well as a copy of the “Green Book.” The exhibit will also explore the negative racially motivated impact of the road on Native Americans and Hispanics.

  4. Ron Hart

    Having lived a short time in both Carterville and Webb City in past years, I cannot remember any blacks living in either. As many may know, the Bradbury Bishop Deli was leased by an African American a year ago and recently closed. The new owner said that the community seemed to shy away from the place once he took over and attributed part of that to his selling barbeque (which was excellent). In retrospect, I see few black-owned businesses along the Route, except in the larger cities. I do not suggest that African-Americans are not welcome on the Mother Road, they certainly are. From a marketing perspective, I wonder if any studies have been made to see why this is, and what can be done to attract them to the Mother Road. The Route enjoys worldwide growing popularity, but we also need to increase “domestic” tourism as well…for ALL Americans, regardless of race.

  5. Jim Conkle

    NO I do not think they should apologize for what happened in the past. But they, and all of us, must make sure it never happens in the present and future.

  6. Jen

    To even read about things like this—though I know they happened—still never fails to surprise me and leaving me thinking, “How bizarre”—to tell certain people they were not allowed in a town at all or after certain times. It’s very foreign to me, though I’m clearly not of that generation. Even so…It does not seem right to me to ask the towns to apologize for something people who are very likely dead and/or whose families are not even there anymore did. As Gordon said, it can also open the door to litigation and frankly, it might hurt even more feelings to have it brought up again in such a fashion. It seems better to me that former “sundown” towns simply and clearly extend a welcome to everyone, making everyone feel comfortable during a visit or even just planning.

  7. Terry Tiller

    An apology is a small thing, a symbolic act more than anything else, and NO, it would not open the town up to litigation. Any statute of limitations that might apply has long since expired. Symbolically, though, an apology would formally recognize a shameful and often hidden act from the past, and make it clear that Edmond and any other “sundown towns” along Rt. 66 are committed to not repeating their histories’ offenses.

  8. Melody

    Not apologizing says to any African-American that their experience does not mean anything, invalidating them as humans. An apology says that what happened was real, and it was wrong, and that they did not deserve that treatment, as well as serving as a healing, welcoming statement for the future.

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