Were there ‘sundown towns’ in Central Ohio?
Sundown towns were a form of discrimination and segregation prominent in the U.S. during the period after Reconstruction through the first half of the 20th century. The name comes from a warning—with either an explicit or implicit threat of violence—that people of color were not welcome in the area after sundown.
Some towns or counties had an actual sign at the border, but often these unwritten rules were simply understood by Black people and unofficially enforced by white communities. One might think that sundown towns were a Southern phenomenon, a relic of the Jim Crow era, but sundown towns were found across the Northern states, including in Ohio.
Columbus resident Sharon Hamersley wanted to know about this history and asked Curious Cbus whether any Columbus suburbs were sundown towns.
Sociologist and author James Loewen’s work is amongst the most comprehensive on researching sundown towns. In his book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” he describes how he identified hundreds of towns using newspaper archives, oral histories and census data.
Loewen defines sundown towns as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus ‘all-white’ on purpose.” In his book, Loewen said that there is evidence that “more than half of all towns” in Ohio could be considered sundown towns. But his definition is seen as overly broad by other academics who argue that it conflates sundown towns with other types of racial segregation.
Ohio State University History Professor Hasan Jeffries said there is a qualitative difference between sundown towns and other types of segregated communities.
“One is this sort of explicit willingness to use violence to keep Black people out and possibly having run them out before,” Jeffries said. “The other is the creation of an all-white community using the levers of government and contracts to keep Black people out.”
Ohio has many examples of both types. One way to tell is to look at how the Black population changes over time.
“When you see a community that has a population of Black people and quickly that population is gone and it never comes back, you're probably going to have a sundown town there,” Jeffries said.
One clear example of a sundown town can be found 30 miles north of Columbus in Marion, Ohio. The town had a Black population for decades. It was known as a stop on the Underground Railroad. However, in 1919 racial violence erupted and approximately 200 Black residents were driven out of the area.
After the murder of one white woman and an assault on another, a Black suspect was apprehended, beaten and turned over to the police. A lynch mob marched on the police station and the county jail in search of the man but authorities had already moved him. The mob then headed towards the predominantly Black neighborhood on the west side of Marion, reportedly shouting and breaking windows.
While the white mob initially targeted Black workers who recently moved to the area for jobs with the Erie Railroad, the violence and intimidation spread to Black business owners and families who had lived in Marion for generations. Signs warning Black residents to leave were posted in front of homes and storefronts. Nearly all of the Black population fled and Marion would remain virtually all white for decades.
Identifying every single sundown town is difficult because there are often no official records or reports, but Loewen’s research points to Ohio towns such as Waverly, Niles and Syracuse as other similar examples.
Professor Jeffries said it is important to note that in most cases, the Black population simply understands this segregation without it being explicitly stated. Signs at the town border are not necessary because the threat has been established and is not easily forgotten.
“Sometimes we underestimate how powerful the fear is,” Jeffries said.
The violence seen in Marion was not unique. In Springfield, Ohio there were race riots in 1904 and 1906 where white mobs attacked Black homes and businesses, setting them on fire, but the Black population was never pushed out.
Here in Columbus and the surrounding suburbs, discrimination took on a different form though it often yielded the same results, such as segregated communities. Jeffries said that the mechanism of discrimination shows the distinction.
“How is that community maintained as exclusively all-white… helps us identify those communities that Black people are unwanted and unwelcome as homeowners and those communities in which Black people are unwanted and unwelcome, period, in any capacity,” he said.
A common practice in Ohio and across the country was for real estate developers to use zoning and restrictive covenants in deeds to keep certain groups out of their subdivisions.
In Central Ohio, about 67% of new subdivisions created between 1921 and 1945 contained these covenants according to one study. The covenants would have explicit language that forbade the sale of property to certain racial groups. Many of those targeted Black people exclusively but others also discriminated against Asians and Jews—or with broad terms like “foreigners” or “undesirables.”
One reason for discriminating in this way was due to “redlining.” In the 1930s, the federally-created Home Owners’ Loan Corporation drew maps of desirable neighborhoods for lenders to invest in, often excluding areas where Black communities lived, which were colored red on the maps. Developers were incentivized to keep Black homeowners out to ensure that properties would qualify for mortgages.
In Upper Arlington, there are many examples of subdivisions that used racial covenants to enforce segregation. Starting in 1926, clauses with restrictive language became common in many home deeds. This remained a standard practice for decades but in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer made these covenants unenforceable. Despite that, the language remained in deeds and was added to new deeds for some time.
Census data shows that these practices and others were successful in keeping Upper Arlington predominantly white, though, like Marion, the area did have a Black community in the 19th century.
It should be noted that Upper Arlington was not alone in using racial covenants. Columbus, Bexley, Whitehall, Worthington and other areas had deeds with similar restrictions in some developments.
The practice, though unenforceable, was not made illegal until the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. An Ohio law passed in 2021 makes it possible to remove discriminatory language from deeds.
In more recent decades, developers can still shape the demographics of their community even without restrictive covenants. Some interpret areas that feature gated communities and lack diverse housing options as tools of discrimination that target a specific socio-economic class and exclude potential low-income residents.
“The lot sizes, the cost of homes, the decision not to build apartments, not to build multi-family dwellings… will have the effect and the purposeful effect of keeping the income level high,” Jeffries said. “And that is not an accident because you could have also planned that community in such a way as to make it more diverse by making a more diverse housing stock.”