Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of an article originally published on Reckoning with Whiteness.
In the Spring of 2018, I sat with my mom in her living room. We lounged in nicely upholstered recliners, hers with a view of her yard, lined by flowers in full bloom and the Kanawha River just beyond. Mom still lives in Charleston, West Virginia, where I was born and raised. She’s been there for forty years since she left rural Nicholas County, just over an hour’s drive to the east through rugged West Virginia hills.
I was visiting my mom from New York City, where my apartment was stacked with books, dog eared and annotated, on the history of racism in the U.S. I was shocked by how much I hadn’t been taught. I began to tell my mom about it when she interrupted.
“You know Tara. I saw a lot of that stuff growing up. There were signs all around that said, ‘N***** don’t let the sun set on you in Nicholas County’. They stayed up until President Eisenhower ordered them down.”
My jaw dropped. “I had no idea. Can I record you telling me about it?” I reached for my phone.
I knew Sundown Towns existed across the country and across the decades of the Jim Crow Era–from the end of the civil war until the height of the civil rights movement– forcing Black people out of towns nationwide. I didn’t know that my family lived in one, in Nicholas County, where 8 generations of my family had made their home. While I tried to reconcile this, my mom kept talking.
“When I was really little, there were no Black people in Nicholas County. And yet, every road leading out of the county, within 10 miles, there were Black families. And that became part of the culture. People put up signs and Blacks knew to stay away.”
I sat wide-eyed and silent. I had never questioned why I only saw white people when we went to visit our family in the mountains on weekends and holidays. Growing up in Charleston, the houses closest to mine had only white families. But my elementary school had as many Black kids as white.
“I’ll tell you one story about what it was like in Nicholas,” mom continued. “This would have been in the ‘60s. State Farm insurance, because we were a rural county, would only send an insurance adjuster once a month. And one time they hired a Black adjuster. He stayed at the best place there was in town, the Oxford Inn. He would come through and people knew. It was the talk of the town. Well, he managed to do the job for a few months. But then one night, he was having dinner and one of his clients came to sit with him. While they ate, these white guys went out and smashed up his car. They smashed his car because it was a white lady that came to sit with him. State Farm relocated him.”
When I laid in bed that night, I reached for my phone and searched for any other accounts about racism in Nicholas County. First I found U.S. Census data showing that Nicholas County had 32 Black residents in 1950 and by 1970, when my mom was 18, there were zero. My heart sank. 32 people banished. I wondered how white residents forced these families to pack up and leave their homes.
I kept searching and found a national crowd sourced database of sundown towns created by Dr. James Loewen of Tougaloo University, where contributors submit personal accounts of people forced out of their town or county. There were fourteen entries for West Virginia, but Nicholas County was not among them.
For those places that did have records, most of the information was written in the passive voice, not saying the exact violence and harassment inflicted on Black families, but that they “weren’t welcome”, “got run out of town”, or the “town was unfriendly to them.” Some were specific in the action taken, but passive in naming the perpetrators. In Marlington a contributor wrote, “In the 1960s the power company sent a black engineer and within a week someone burned a cross in his lawn. The power company moved him out.” Someone from Lincoln County says that “not too long ago” a mixed race couple were living together and “community members threatened to burn down the house.”
I didn’t hear about racism in West Virginia growing up. In my classrooms in the 1990s, I was taught to believe that slavery was not really practiced in West Virginia and the racial injustices that followed emancipation never occurred there either. When I didn’t see Black people in rural West Virginia, my brain created a story to fill in the gaps, assuming that it was mere happenstance that I only saw white people living in Nicholas County.
Ten more minutes and I reached my Aunt Jean’s house. I’d spent endless hours on Jean’s porch swing, listening to stories about the people and land in Nicholas. Jean’s yard was full of movement, with chickens, grand-kids, a Maine Coon cat all scurrying around. Each visit Uncle Jack would inevitably come out and say something along the lines of, “Tara Jeanne, you want a gooseberry?” and he’d lead me around the yard to show me what was growing and what was ready for eating–apples, grapes, gooseberries or black walnuts, depending on the season.
While reaching for something in a cabinet she said “I heard you’re writing something about those fancy schools you went to?” Not waiting for a reply, she launched into talking about her opinions on private school. “It just doesn’t seem right. Does it? People here have so much trouble getting a good education and other people can just pay for it. Is that what you’re writing about?”
Jean sat down to hear my reaction. It was an unusually quiet day at her house, just the two of us. On any given day, her home is full of family. She’s a caretaker to her six grand-kids. Uncle Jack is usually home, alternating between watching WVU football and telling stories. But today there was no TV, no one else, just Aunt Jean and me at her table.
“Well. I’m writing about the opportunities I’ve had. But also how people from other backgrounds weren’t able to have those same opportunities. Like right here in Nicholas. Mom was telling me yesterday that when she was growing up, there were signs around here that said ‘N-word don’t let the sun set on you in Nicholas County.’ I had no idea. Did you see that too?”
Jean sat back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling, searching her memories. “Well yeah. Up at town we always went to the Johnson’s store. The store across the street had a sign saying they didn’t serve Black people, so we always went to Johnson’s. Plus the Johnsons were our cousins.” Jean stays seated. Normally she would have reached for a cigarette or refilled her coffee, but today she stayed put. “But you know, I didn’t raise my kids to be racist. And we aren’t. I don’t know why that should matter.”
I gave a reassuring smile. “I know that. And I’m glad that you don’t think that way. No matter what you and I believe though, black people didn’t have the same chance to make a living here.” I said.
Jean leaned forward, pressing her elbows on the table. “You know, I want to tell you something. A few years back when I was selling insurance at Global, they had me going all over the state. And I met this woman up at Clarksburg. I told her she should come visit us down in Nicholas. That she could stay at our house. We’d take her up to the lake and show her around. Well. She was a Black woman. And she said to me, ‘Jean. Black people don’t go to Nicholas County.’”
“Wow.” I said, genuinely surprised. “To this day? Wow.”
The 2010 Census shows 43 black people now residing in Nicholas County. Black residents found a willingness to return in the decades since the sundown signs came down, but the myths about them persist.
A few weeks ago I was quick to answer my phone when my cousin Bethany called. At eighteen and a freshman in college, I love hearing how Bethany is navigating life and I give guidance where I can. When I picked up, Bethany was annoyed.
“Well. Here’s what’s going on. I get rides all of the time from other kids, to go to school and back and to do stuff around town. But my one friend’s dad always says that when my friend who is Black does it, when he gets rides from other people, that he’s lazy for not having a car and driving himself. The thing is, he works harder than all of us. He’s had a job forever and hasn’t had an easy life.”
“Sweetie. I’m not surprised your friend’s dad says that. Let me tell you about what I’ve learned about Nicholas County. It’s been like that for a long time.” I told Bethany everything I’ve learned, about Peter and about the sundown town. When I finished, she was outraged.
“What? How come nobody ever tells us this stuff?! Nobody ever talked to me about it?!”
I settled my face on my hand. “I think they’re ashamed. Or they think it’s in the past and they want to leave it there. But it’s not in the past of course. It’s still happening, just like with your friend’s dad. Black people have done so much of the work to build our country. But we don’t acknowledge it. Instead people make up stories saying that they are lazy and not hard working. But you know your friend works hard. So we have to be the ones to tell the truth. We have to be the ones to talk about what happened here.”
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Tara Brown is founder of Reckoning with Whiteness.