Sundown towns were real across the U.S. from 1890 to the years following Jim Crow. They were all-white communities or counties that intentionally excluded Black people and other minorities through discriminatory laws, threats, harassment or use of violence. These all-white communities were named sundown towns because they were places where Black people were allowed in during the day to work or shop but had to be gone by nightfall.
After slavery was abolished in the United States, many White lawmakers in the South introduced discriminatory policies leading to the establishment of the Jim Crow era. There was segregation in trains, buses, schools and other public facilities. And it was around this same period that many sundown towns emerged. These sundown towns were not only in the South as many thought. There were sundown communities in the Midwest, in the West and in the North.
A small town in Florida known as Jay became a sundown town after an argument between a Black farmer and a White farmer drove the entire Black population out of the town. Many have forgotten this disturbing story. It occurred in 1922 when the Black farmer named Albert Thompson fought with White farmer Sam Echols over a piece of farm equipment — a stalk cutter — that belonged to Thompson.
Here’s how the Pensacola News Journal described what happened: “It was the morning of Feb. 24, 1922, when Echols, along with his friend Joil Yarber, approached a farm owned by another Black farmer, Henry Daniels. Thompson and Daniels were there, and Echols wanted to use the stalk cutter. Thompson told Echols he would have to come back another day as it was already promised for someone else.
“Echols ignored Thompson’s objections and started hooking up the farm equipment to his mule. By Yarber’s account, Thompson began unhooking the mule, cursing at Echols. Echols then came up to Thompson and pulled Thompson’s tobacco pipe from his mouth, throwing it to the ground.”
Thompson later testified that Yarber held him as Echols beat him with an iron bar from the cutter. Amid the struggle, Thompson brought out a pistol and fired several shots, hitting Echols three times. Thompson then fled the area. Echols died the following day. Thompson escaped out of fear he would be lynched, historians say.
But he was soon captured and taken to jail. All of the Black residents of Jay, numbering about 175, were forced to leave the town. Thompson was not able to contact any witnesses who may help his case since all the Black residents had been forced to move. He was convicted of second-degree murder by an all-white jury. He was to serve a life sentence, but he only served six years before his sentence was commuted. The Pace family he had worked for helped get him his freedom and he continued to work for that family until his death in the 1930s.
According to the Times Union, the Jay area had 175 Black residents in 1922. Today, there are only 13; four live in the town itself. There were signs in the 1950s and 1960s showing it as a sundown town but those signs disappeared in the 1970s after oil was discovered near the town, attracting oil workers and reporters who observed that there were no Black residents.
“What happened in 1922 and the aftermath. The Black population being forcibly removed, it’s arguably the most significant thing that ever happened historically up there,” said historian Tom Garner, according to The Florida Times-Union.
“There’d be hundreds or thousands of descendants (of the 175 people forced out of Jay), and a lot of them would still be in Jay. The face of Jay would be completely different today.”
Today, there are still discussions around the troubled history of sundown towns and how some still do exist in various forms.