‘Lovecraft Country’ and the dark history of Alabama’s ‘sundown towns’

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(Courtesy of Warner Media Group)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In the first episode of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” three Black travelers making their way across a 1950s America stop to rest along the side of the road. A white sheriff soon pulls up behind them.

After questioning the three characters–Atticus, Letitia and Uncle George– about who they are and where they’re going, the sheriff turns to a darker subject.

“Any of you all know what a sundown town is?” the sheriff asks.

Prior to their run-in with the sheriff, the main characters had left one town with a sign that read “N***ERS— DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU HERE. UNDERSTAND?

“Yes sir, we do,” Uncle George said.

“Well, this is a sundown county, and if I had found you pissing in my woods like animals after dark, it would’ve been my sworn duty to hang every single one of you from them trees,” the sheriff said.

“It’s not sundown yet,” Atticus retorted.

The plot unfolds into a race against the clock, as the travelers attempt to escape the county before sunset—all while driving under the speed limit and with the sheriff on their heels. Cosmic horror ensues.

The show, which has already received critical acclaim and high ratings in its first two episodes, is adapted from Matt Ruff’s 2016 horror fiction novel—an ode to writer H.P. Lovecraft‘s work—set in the Jim Crow era. While “Lovecraft Country” has brought the characters and themes of its namesake to a wider audience, its more profound impact is in its illumination of Blacks’ plight in small-town America. The show references the little-known history of “sundown towns,” communities which were predominantly or all-white where it was implied Black people should leave before sunset.

For a time, Cullman and Arab were considered sundown towns. In “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” sociologist James Loewen wrote about the many towns across the country where Black people were intimidated into staying away after dark, mentioning Cullman and Arab as two of the many communities that did so.

Loewen wrote about how for decades, a community called “The Colony” in Cullman County was the primary area where many Black residents lived. However, few to none actually lived in Cullman. The community eventually became a town and shortened its name to just “Colony.”

“African Americans who worked as maids and handymen commuted into Cullman in the mid-1950s by carpools,” Loewen wrote. “The Colony had an elementary school, but before Cullman’s schools desegregated in 1970, African Americans who wanted to go to high school had to go to another county.”

Although Loewen’s book depends on anecdotes to classify communities as “sundown towns,” historical accounts substantiate the claims of hostility towards Black people in those communities. In an 1898 article titled “The Race Problem” in The Free Press in Ozark, Cullman was mentioned for its stance on race.

“It is our recollection that it was once ‘against the law’ for a negro to live in Cullman in this state,” the article stated.

In Cullman, stories have circulated for years about a local sign that read “N***er Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in this Town.” Though some have contested the racist sign’s existence, others wrote about it in the early part of the 20th century. In his 1934 book “Stars Fell on Alabama,” author Carl Carmer described seeing the sign while visiting Cullman. Carmer asked his caddy, Henry, as to why the sign was there in a town where many German immigrants had begun settling after the Civil War.

“All the German women couldn’t stand havin’ ’em round ’cause they was so no-count an’ carless like,” Henry said. “So they run ’em out.”

In 2006, former Alabama Speaker of the House Thomas Drake told The Tuscaloosa News that the sign existed, adding there used to be signs along the railroad and near the Cullman County line with similar messagse. Although he said he had never seen it, he had heard about it from his grandfather and parents, all of whom claimed to have seen it.

“I’m not saying it was the Germans that put up the signs,” Drake told columnist Ben Windham in the article. “But in my judgment and opinion, at one time Blacks were afraid to go into certain parts of Cullman County. That’s just the way it was.”

In Arab, there were some stories Loewen heard from people he interviewed about how years ago, Black people allegedly were not allowed in the city, even during the day. One former University of Alabama student told Loewen that a similar sign to Cullman’s stood in the town well into the 1990s.

Regardless of the past, Cullman and Arab’s Black population have remained historically low over the years. In the 2010 Census, Black people counted only for 1.3% of the Cullman’s white-dominated (92.6%) population. In Arab, less than .7% of the town’s population were Black in the 2010 Census.

However, people in both communities have pointed to change and new opportunities for all in recent decades. Derek Lane, former director of small business and workforce solutions for the Cullman Chamber of Commerce, said the idea that Cullman did not embrace diversity was a myth.

“With increasing statistics of different ethnicities and races present in the Cullman community, we like to think of ourselves as a miniature ‘melting pot’ where anyone and everyone is welcome, and we treat you like family,” Lane told the Chamber’s newsletter in 2015. “Cullman’s small town charm and big city appeal have attracted people from all over into calling our fine city ‘home.'”

Lane, who is Black, also brought up Cullman’s notorious sign.

“Is the sign real? It doesn’t make a difference,” Lane said. “What I’ve experienced here is no more or less than the issues in any other area I’ve been in. As I prepare to make my exit, I’ll be an unofficial
ambassador for Cullman.”

Loewen’s list of sundown towns and their stories can be found here.


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