B&O Book Club: Devil in the Grove – What about these “Sundown Towns”?
The Blood and Oranges Book Club launches with our reading of Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove (herein “DITG”) Billy and I are preoccupied with American history as refracted through the twin lenses of race and politics. As evidenced by this website, our particular fascination involves Florida from the close of the Civil War through the Civil Rights era. Because Gilbert King’s impressive new book perfectly combines our interests, I feel we are particularly well positioned to engage and discuss DITG.
We can get through the first week’s reading pretty quickly because the prologue and the first two chapters barely mention Florida.
The prologue gives background on Thurgood Marshall, his exacting approach to work and his family. Trains are invoked as both real means of transit from Marshall’s home and offices in New York to the South and as symbol of the journey from relative safety and comfort to the foreign, lawless country of Jim Crow. Florida gets invoked briefly: there is a reference to the infamous Rubin Stacy lynching photo from Fort Lauderdale in 1935 (just do the google search). Norma Padgett is first mentioned and her dramatic testimony identifying the suspects in her alleged rape is recounted as King compares her to Mayella Ewell from To Kill a Mockingbird. The Groveland case is offered as key to Marshall’s perception of himself and for its impact on America. We also get a sense of Marshall’s rapport with working class blacks & their hero worship for him: “a lawyer the white man would listen to and a black man could trust.”
Chapter 1 brings the reader to Columbia Tennessee and its infamous 1946 race riots and ensuing trials. Marshall has unprecedented success in representing black defendants in the Jim Crow South, but nearly is lynched he. We get a reference to a “Sundown Town” sign.
Chapter 2 starts with another Sundown Town anecdote, but quickly returns us to Harlem in the 1930 & 40s. We are introduced Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, and the dynamic world of 409 Edgecomb. There is more of Marshall’s personal situation: marital stress, celebrity status and exhaustion. Marshall wins awards and fame for his central role in the Smith v. Allwright decision which banned whites only primaries.
I want to start by discussing Sundown Towns. These are localities which openly proclaimed that blacks risked death if they stayed within their borders, after sunset. Much of the work about Sundown Towns comes from James Loewen who has a book and website about this phenomenon. See: http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntowns.php
But concrete information about these Suntown Towns seems elusive. Many examples conflate places with racial restrictive covenants with towns that explicitly threatened violence. Are Sundown Towns as much a metaphor as a literal reality?