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B&O Book Club: Devil in the Grove – What about these “Sundown Towns”?

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”)

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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

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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

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& 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”

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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

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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

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One Comment

  1. I found he Loewen book fascinating. But you’re right in that the evidence of these practices is elusive. That was whole point, I think. Most seemed not to have written anything down, beyond perhaps restrictive covenants. Lowen has photos of odd signs that spell out the generally unspoken; yet, these are almost certainly the exceptions. Take a look at the geography of these towns: mainly in the border states and lower Midwest. These are areas where racial oonsciousness was and remains high, but the actual number of blacks is low, especially in rural zones. I would venture that violent Klan activity dovetailed nicely with these regions, especially in the 1920s.

    In the Midwest, there was no statutory Jim Crow to ethnically purify communities; these folks relied on threats and force, which easil;y morphed into habit and assumption — the old “it’s our history and culture” justification. Blacks simply knew by word of mouth which places to avoid.

    No less a figure than J. William Fulbright, long-time senator from Arkanasas, repeatedly bragged to Northern audiences that his hometown in the Ozarks endured few of the racial tensions of southern and eastern Arkansas. He was correct insomuch as his home county had virtually no blacks; he never realized, or at never least acknowledged, that the reason for this was that they were expelled in a pogrom. The cotton and rice country of the state couldn’t afford to lose its cheap, malleable black labor, so they managed tensions in a different way. That disingenuousness never stopped Fulbright from voting against every civil reights bill he ever faced when it counted.

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