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Should Route 66 towns that were sundown towns apologize? January 21, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in History, Towns.
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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?

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