Correction to This Article
The photo of a "Whites Only" sign on Page One on Feb. 21 should have been credited to the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Ga.

When Signs Said 'Get Out'

James W. Loewen, author of "Sundown Towns," says he found reports of thousands of such places. (Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Anthony Griffin remembers the signs. How could he forget them?

A black lawyer, he grew up in Baytown, Tex. Back in high school in the late '60s and early '70s, he would borrow his mom's car and drive around East Texas, exploring. He saw the signs in a couple of towns.

"I was terrified," he says. "You're driving with your buddies and you say, 'Thank God, it's not dark. Let's get the hell out.' "

George Brosi remembers the signs, too. Editor of Appalachian Heritage magazine, he recalls seeing one sign in southern Kentucky back in the 1990s when he was a college English teacher.

"It was on Highway 461," he says. "It stayed up for about a year and then it mysteriously disappeared. It was probably five feet across and three feet tall. It was off the right-of-way, up on a hillside in an overgrown pasture."

The signs are gone now but once they were a part of America's roadside culture, posted along the highway at the town or county line, a blunt reminder of brutal racism.

"Most read 'Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Set on You in -- ,' " says James Loewen, the Washington-based author of a controversial new book called "Sundown Towns." But sometimes, he adds, the sign makers tried to get clever. "Some came in a series, like the old Burma Shave signs, saying, ' . . . If You Can Read . . . You'd Better Run . . . If You Can't Read . . . You'd Better Run Anyway.' "

Most of the signs were posted in the first half of the 20th century, Loewen says, but some lingered on long afterward. They were not a Southern phenomenon, he stresses. They were found all over the United States with local variations:

In Colorado: "No Mexicans After Night."

In Connecticut: "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark."

In Nevada, the ban was expanded to include those the sign-writers term "Japs."

All told, Loewen says, he found evidence of more than 150 sundown signs in 31 states. But he wasn't researching the sundown signs . They were just symbols. He was researching sundown towns , which he defines as "towns that were all white on purpose." He found lots of them -- far more than he expected when he began his research in his home state of Illinois about five years ago.

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