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Central Pennsylvania ‘Sundown Towns’ And The Legacy Of Racism

Above photo: The National Socialist Movement, one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States, was one of 36 hate groups active in Pennsylvania in 2020. Members of the group gathered summer 2020 at a downtown Williamsport, PA park. PennLive.

“It’s Still Here.”

“Don’t get caught there,” The legacy of sundown towns is not confined to the pages of history books – but is alive and well in 2024. Deep racial disparities are evidence that the intent of sundown towns still lingers today.

Growing up in the 1960s, the Rev. Roger Dixon heard the warnings every time the William Penn High School football team was set to play Cedar Cliff.

“The older men used to say ‘don’t get caught up there after the game. You might get into trouble. They might try to arrest you,’” recalls Dixon, who is Black and graduated from William Penn in 1966.

Rafiyqa Muhammad tells of a similar experience growing up in Harrisburg.

“Our parents always told us about certain areas,” she said. “Our father would tell us don’t go here, don’t go there. Do not go over to the West Shore. I remember we would drive in and drive out. There was no going over and hanging out.”

Like Dixon, Muhammad, who is Black and came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, lived through some of the most tumultuous times in this country as the vestiges of segregation and the push for civil rights framed the lives of millions of Americans.

As the nation observes Black History Month in February, celebrating the accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans, the experiences of ordinary Americans like Dixon and Muhammad attest to the painful reality that racism was not confined to the south.

Across communities in central Pennsylvania, Black residents were made to feel unwelcome in many communities, especially after dark, and in many cases the communities were their own.

So-called “sundown towns” became a fixture across the country in the early 1900s. These were all-white communities that excluded non-whites via discriminatory laws, intimidation and violence.

These practices were at times explicit – written into statutes and charters – and other times the understanding that if you were Black, you better be out of town by sunset, hence the name. Some towns posted warning signs to Blacks not to “let the sun go down on you here.” Other towns rang a bell at the end of the workday warning Black workers to leave.

Harrisburg may have been well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but in many ways was emblematic of the practice of sundown towns. While Dixon and Muhammad attended predominantly Black schools and spent time in mostly Black communities, sometimes they needed to cross the Susquehanna River to the mostly white west shore.

“They didn’t call it sundown town, but we know what they meant,” Dixon said. “The old men would say you never know, you never know. Don’t get caught up over there. They were very serious about it.”

Cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor has collected crowd-sources data showing that Pennsylvania was home to about 40 sundown towns, underscoring that these towns were not confined to the south or Midwest.

In her book, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America,” Taylor mapped the prevalence of such towns in the region. They included Middletown and Camp Hill, and while Harrisburg was not named among the towns, oral histories of residents suggest that those racist attitudes in some neighborhoods prevailed.

“When I hear people say sundown town, I know what that means but I’m looking at my own backyard,” Muhammad said. “We couldn’t get more sundown than here and it’s still that way.”

Muhammad grew up with the unwritten rule that she and her friends – as they walked to and from school and across their Harrisburg community — needed to avoid areas.

“There were places we could not go to,” she recalls. “When we went to school you better not walk through Bellevue Park. You better not be caught there. Italian Lake? The same. You better not be caught in Italian Lakes or the authorities would be called on you and who knows what else.”

Colonial Park, Susquehanna Township and even Steelton were off limits to Blacks in those days. Venturing into northern Dauphin County and Cumberland County was strongly discouraged for Black residents.

“For some of us that are from here those communities are triggering,” Muhammad said. “I remember The Hill Cafe at the corner of 13th and Market. Blacks weren’t allowed to go in. If you did go, you went out back and you didn’t stay long. This is during my childhood.”

The conversation around sundown towns typically raises a debate over whether the distinction was explicit — based on written regulation or policy — or not.

Some towns and even housing complexes like Lenker Manor in Swatara Township had charters that had exclusionary clauses barring Blacks from buying houses or living within the community. Other communities fostered the reputation of being off limits to non-whites.

“All you have to do is look at Penbrook,” said Karl Singleton, president and CEO of the PA Diversity Coalition. “I would be driving by with my grandmother and wonder why there were no Black people in the swimming pool. Come to find out they had a residency requirement. At the time, it was redlined. Black people didn’t live in that area of Penbrook.”

Blacks could not join the pool and they couldn’t buy a home in the community. Singleton remembers that when redlining — a discriminatory practice in which financial services, like loans, are withheld, largely from minorities — was lifted, Blacks slowly began to buy homes there.

“What was one of the main things they did once redlining was lifted? They shut the pool down,” Singleton said. “It is not a figment of our imagination. It’s real.”

Between 1936 and 1967, many Black Americans relied on “The Green Book” anytime they were venturing from home. The book served as a travel guide for Black Americans to help find safe places to stay, shop and eat on the road.

The late sociologist and civil rights champion James W. Loewen, examined such exclusion in “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” (2005), which explored the communities that systematically, and often forcibly, excluded Black people, Jews and others.

The central Pennsylvania jurisdictions on that list included: Camp Hill, Hanover, Elizabethtown, Hershey, Manheim, Mechanicsburg, Selinsgrove and the whole of York County.

“Sundown towns were not just restricted to the south or the midwest. They were virtually in every state,” said Mary Zaborskis, an assistant professor of American Studies and Gender Studies at Penn State Harrisburg.

“When we think about the north we think of it as a place where those things didn’t happen. We had many newly emancipated Black people moving to the north thinking it’s the promised land but the imaginings of the political, social and cultural opportunities of the north were illusions. We have generations that had to navigate Jim Crow laws, segregation and other messages of non-belonging right here.”

The history of sundown towns has been documented in photographs and newspaper accounts, but it’s perhaps the oral histories that capture the fear behind the warnings.

“There was this knowledge that was circulated,” Zaborskis said. “People knew realtors weren’t going to show you homes in this area or you were going to be told you would be more comfortable looking in other places. It wasn’t things in books but lived experience and the knowledge that had to be kept in a community but still circulated.”

Archives are filled with accounts of blatant acts of racism and exclusion.

One of the more notable cases took place in 1937 when two Black educators, who had traveled to Harrisburg with nearly 100 other teachers — all of them white — were denied accommodations at the Penn Harris Hotel. The teachers, citing the recently ratified state equal rights law, won in court, but the case did little to move the racial justice needle forward.

Over the decades, Pennsylvania emerged as a hotbed for white supremacist hate groups, at times ranking among the top five states with the highest concentration of hate groups. Parts of York County became enclaves for the Ku Klux Klan.

A student at Gettysburg College in the early 1970s, Kaaba Brunson learned quickly that certain areas of the borough were off limits to Blacks and he was unable to find rental housing.

“There were realtors that simply did not rent to people of color,” said Brunson, chairperson for the Greater Harrisburg NAACP Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological, & Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), which focuses on improving academic performance of marginalized students.

“When we think about segregation we typically think of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s..and think it disappeared. It was still going on in late 1960s and 1970s.”

In fact, Brunson argues that the legacy of sundown towns is not confined to the pages of history books – but is alive and well in 2024.

Brunson, who had his first encounter with a klansman in full regalia in York County in 1977, points to deep racial disparities in the workforce, unemployment and lack of education opportunities as evidence that the intent of sundown towns still lingers today.

“When I look at our society I see the vestiges of Jim Crow staring at me in all segments and it’s even more effective now because it’s not being recognized,” Brunson said. He reels off a list of recent incidents across central Pennsylvania schools in which Black and brown students were the targets of racial hostility and even violence. Black students being called “monkeys” by white peers, often with no consequences.

“It’s still here and it’s more powerful than it has ever been,” Brunson said.

Muhammad argues that despite diversity in communities, many Black homeowners don’t feel welcome in places like Camp Hill and Lemoyne.

“Just because you have Blacks living there don’t mean nothing,” she said. “They are catching hell. Anywhere in Cumberland County. People want to talk about Perry County being bad, I tell them go look at Dauphin County. You could still find confederate flags flying in Dauphin County. Travel down [Route] 230 see if you don’t see some. We don’t have to go far. It’s right under our nose.”

Muhammad has no shortage of encounters where she faced racism on the West Shore, but also parts of Harrisburg and Dauphin County. She recently had difficult encounters while passing out literature on environmental justice in uptown Harrisburg and she felt profiled at a consignment store on the West Shore.

“I‘m not going to go to certain places up the river, ” Muhamad said. “I‘ve been in areas around here that if you took the wrong turn, you’ve got folks coming out with guns in their hands.”

A Black family last year was driven out of the Lower Dauphin School District — and the area — after their two high school students endured ongoing racial harassment.

The siblings were taunted by racial epithets in person and on social media to the point where the family felt it had to move. Delali Mensah Jamison and her husband, along with children, Kamau and Shekinah, relocated back to Maryland.

Singleton cites insidious examples of racism persisting today, especially in schools and policing.

Singleton noted choices in school curriculum that exclude Black history and disparities in policing along racial lines; as well as the predominantly white police departments serving minority communities like Harrisburg. Another example: the disproportionately high rate of Blacks arrested compared to whites, despite the fact they represent a far smaller percentage of the population..

“The difference is accountability,” Singleton said. “That’s where the uproar comes. The marches. It’s the injustice in the very system. That’s a long way around talking about sundown towns, but it is poignant and necessary. You have to showcase the inequity.”

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