Curfews “became necessary,” according to Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney’s recent executive order, to “protect the City and its residents from severe endangerment and harm to their health, safety and property.” Violating curfews is not without consequence. In Minnesota, for example, residents who do not comply with the nighttime curfew are “guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction must be punished by a fine not to exceed $1,000 or by imprisonment for not more than 90 days.” In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the curfew “will continue on a daily basis until the organized protests are gone.”
Although justified by officials as a tool to promote public safety, historically, curfews have been most frequently used to suppress insurgent political challenges, particularly those aimed at opposing white supremacy.
The history of curfews in the United States shows that these types of laws originated — and are most often deployed — as a form of surveillance, control and criminalization of black people, indigenous people and other people of color.
Some mainstream commentators pin the genesis of curfews to Watts in 1965 or Detroit in 1967 — both rebellions squarely based in black-led calls for an end to police terrorism and discrimination in housing and employment. The story of the imposition of curfews as a response to black people’s demands for freedom has a much longer history, one that is central to the birth of the nation itself.
Curfews expressly intended to restrict the movement and liberties of free and enslaved African people — and in many cases, indigenous people — proliferated in the British colonies in North America throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, some of the first colonial codes and statutes enacted in the 1690s applied exclusively to Africans and Native Americans. The restrictions represented a grouping of policies that granted selective access to space and unencumbered movement as the basis for an emerging racial order. Such codes helped produce social hierarchy and racialized notions of political belonging.
In “New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America,” Wendy Warren writes that in 1690, the Connecticut colony “passed its first ‘curfew’ law forbidding ‘negroes’ from being away from ‘the place to which they doe belong’ without a written pass from their owner. The law authorized ‘any’ English inhabitant to apprehend such ‘negroes,’ effectively deputizing the free citizenry while reinforcing racial hierarchies.”
In 1703, Rhode Island’s General Assembly passed a similar code to restrict activities of free and servant “Negroes and Indians,” stating: “If any negroes or Indians either freemen, servants, or slaves, do walk in the street of the town of Newport, or any other town in this Collony, after nine of the clock of night, without certificate from their masters, or some English person of said family with, or some lawfull excuse for the same, that it shall be lawfull for any person to take them up and deliver them to a Constable.”
Throughout the 1720s, several colonies passed “acts to prevent disorders in the night.” New Hampshire’s 1726 model is illustrative: “That no Indian, negro, or Molotto Servant or Slave may presume to [be] absent from the Families where they respectively belong, or be found Abroad in the Night Time after Nine a Clock, unless it be upon Errand for their respective Masters or Owners.” The penalty of violating such an order included being “openly Whipped by the Constable, not exceeding Ten Stripes.”
In 1728, a special watch patrolled the streets of Boston to apprehend “all Negro and Molatto Servants” who were out after 10 p.m.
In 1775, white leaders in Wilmington, N.C., ordered a 9 p.m. curfew and imposed an oath of allegiance on those they enslaved. Over the next 20 years, curfews intended to restrict the liberties of free and enslaved black people proliferated throughout the South and could be found in Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia.
In the aftermath of Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831 in Southampton County, Va., “alarm bells sounded every night” in Richmond to announce a curfew for enslaved people, and a “state-appointed public guard and city night watch were responsible for the apprehension of slaves out after curfew or suspected of illegal meetings.”
In 1909, Mobile, Ala., passed a curfew law applying only to black people and requiring them to be off the streets by 10 p.m.
During what is now known as Red Summer 1919 — a name coined by luminary James Weldon Johnson to signal the grotesque violence, terrorism and bloodshed that black people experienced at the hands of white vigilantes across the United States — about 15 cities imposed overnight curfews in direct response to African Americans organizing to defend themselves and their communities.
As black residents of Longview, Tex., took up arms in the aftermath of the lynching of Lemuel Walters — a black man accused of “miscegenation” — the governor, William Hobby, and his emissary, Brig. Gen. R.H. McDill, ordered a 10:30 p.m. curfew and prohibited groups of three or more from gathering on the city’s streets.
Sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and countless others, today’s protests reflect a deepening and broadening challenge to police terrorism against black people and other communities of color across the United States.
Although today’s protests are decidedly multiracial in composition, the widespread imposition of curfews reflects a long-standing white political reflex to organized calls for black liberation. The curfews we see today should not be understood as a colorblind intervention centered on public safety, but rather as a retrenchment of racial control amid calls for justice, accountability and freedom.