“We have to get out of here before dark.”
Mattie Anderson and her daughter Ernestine hurried to finish cleaning a house in Orange, California so they could go back home to Santa Ana. Someone had told Ernestine’s mother about the rule, and now she passed the knowledge on to Ernestine. No person of color could stay after nightfall; the city of Orange was a “sundown town.” Ernestine and her mother were black. Ernestine and her mother had to go.
The Anderson family had moved to Santa Ana from Oklahoma in 1937. Ernestine was about 15 years old at the time. Her father was a pastor at the Second Baptist Church there, so her family moved into a house just across the street from the church. Despite her father’s position, her mother had to work to make ends meet. She did primarily domestic work — laundry and cleaning. That is how she got the job of cleaning that house in a town where she could not have lived. Though her father moved back to Oklahoma in 1939, Ernestine and her mother stayed in Southern California.
Mattie Anderson was a pillar of her community in Santa Ana. She was known as “Mother Anderson” for her hospitality and willingness to assist others. She helped new members of the community find work and converted her garage into a space for anyone who needed somewhere to stay. She was buried there, and Ernestine, who had always been heavily involved in her high school’s extracurricular activities, remained an active member of the Santa Ana community until she moved away.
In 1971, Ernestine bought a duplex in Orange, the same place she’d had to leave by dark when she was a child. As she searched for the right property, she noted that there were still places whose managers or owners would not sell to her because she was black. The realtors would only show her potential homes at night. A neighbor discovering that a black person was looking to buy a house in their proximity could affect property values or a realtor’s career. Once she moved in, she found that her neighbors were fine. No one accosted her. No one accused her. No one harassed her. Still, it took her months to feel like she truly belonged in Orange even though she owned property there. In the words of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, an award-winning book on blackness in America, her physical carriage hauled more than its weight. Her past experiences weighed on her, and she would come home, sit in her house, and ruminate on those experiences from her childhood and from the more recent turmoil of finding her new home until she had a realization. “What is this?” she said to herself, “You belong here; you own property.” In spite of its past, she came to love the city of Orange.
Mattie and Ernestine were not in a unique position. They shared this experience with people of color across the United States from the end of the Civil War until as late as the 1960’s in Orange. Contrary to the North’s reputation for opposing the South’s implementation of segregation, sundown towns were more prevalent in Northern and Western states, where segregation should have been outlawed. They are a bizarre and often enigmatic manifestation of the North’s long history of complicity in racist institutions. Before the abolition of slavery in the South, Northern states passed legislation that made it illegal for their residents to harbor or assist escaped slaves. By law, the slaves in question had to be returned to their owners in the South and to whatever punishment awaited them there. All the while, the whole country reaped the benefits of a workforce forced to labor for free. The polarized belief that racism existed in the South but not in the North has always been naive. Their connection did not end with slavery.
Immediately following the Civil War and the legal end of slavery was the period of Reconstruction. It lasted from 1865 until 1877, and it was a peaceful period relative to the bloody war that preceded it. However, it was, at its core, 12 years of the pot trying to keep the kettle from getting out of line. Ultimately, it failed. Once it ended, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws almost immediately, establishing segregation throughout the region. Again, it appeared that the North had some moral high ground. Officially, it had no segregation to carry on the grand tradition of oppression, so large portions of the newly freed African-American population began to move away from the South after the end of the Civil War. Yet, just beneath the surface of litigation lay these towns, neighborhoods, and communities that practiced the same exclusion.
A man named Neff Graham Cox faced this exclusion for 16 years as he traveled into and out of Brea from his home in Fullerton for his work as a bootblack. Neff had moved to Fullerton from Mobile, Alabama. A friendly black man of medium height and medium build, he owned a successful shoeshine stand. The people of Brea liked him. They enjoyed his congenial nature and sense of humor. He was a part of their community. But only during business hours, only until the last bus of the day came to drive him out of town.
Brea was founded as an oil town in 1917. Its census data never shows a single black resident until 1940. Yet between these times Neff arrived steadfastly at work every day and left every night, steady as the drills that pulled oil from the earth. A 1950 history of Brea written by Purl Harding, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, says of Neff Cox, “Despite the fact that Neff was colored, he knew the fundamentals of what constituted a good citizen and practiced the principals [sic] of community spirit. Civil Rights wouldn’t have veered Neff from his course if he had known about it then, and that accounted for the friends he made.” The language of this description isolates Neff from his community and from his family in harrowing harmony with the nature of Brea itself. For the citizens of Brea, Neff’s character and humor and charm could not shield him from the tempered gaze of those who felt that he did not belong. Its residents saw him not as a human being but as an exception to the rule that guided the way they conducted their town. The full extent of his existence in Brea took place during the daytime as he served his customers, shining their shoes, or sitting with the International Coffee Club at 10 a.m. every morning having coffee, talking and kidding with the Brea community. “They didn’t mind,” says former Brea school superintendent Vincent Jaster. To them, he was non-threatening and alone. He was the only black man there in Brea, and he couldn’t stay past dark. As Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen, “…The energy required to be present, to react, to assert, is accompanied by a visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”
In his home in Fullerton, however, Neff was far from isolated. He was surrounded by his large family with whom he lived, and he was surrounded by the community of African-Americans who lived on Truslow Avenue. When a fire partially destroyed his house, his community surprised him with a kitchen and linen shower at another couple’s home to help replace the things he and his family had lost. There were more than 20 people there. Others who couldn’t make it that day sent gifts, and The California Eagle, a black newspaper based in LA, published an article about the shower.
Purl Harding was wrong. Neff’s sense of community did not exist in opposition with his race; rather they existed in harmony. When Neff died of pneumonia in August of 1941 at the age of just 41, both The Brea Progress and The California Eagle reported on his funeral. The turnout included both white residents of Brea whom he had befriended and members of his family and the Fullerton community in which he lived.
Some might argue that Neff left Brea every day before sundown simply because he had to catch the last bus to Fullerton, where he lived, or that Mattie and Ernestine had other reasons to get back home to Santa Ana early. However, Mattie Anderson did not say to Ernestine, “Hurry because we have to catch the last bus back home.” or, “Hurry because we have to be home in time for dinner.” Mattie turned to her daughter and said, “We have to get out of here before dark.”
This fear was a rational one for Mattie and Neff and other people of color throughout Orange County. The Ku Klux Klan is deeply rooted in the county’s history, to its foundation. Henry W. Head, a prominent member of the Klan, was an instrumental figure in Orange County’s secession from Los Angeles County in the late 1800’s. By the 1920’s, the KKK had strong roots in many prominent cities; chief among them was Anaheim, but membership was popular all over the county. Though members sometimes burned crosses and held rallies across the county, it operated largely in secret until 1922, when Anaheim District Attorney Alexander P. Nelson made its list of members public. The Klan patrolled the streets. Some of its members were elected city officials, and the organization had ties to the police. Many of Brea’s founders were members. Though they were active in places like Fullerton and Santa Ana, which did have black populations, places like Brea and Orange, which were newer and essentially rural in the 1920’s, were particularly susceptible to a more thorough enactment of the KKK’s racist ideals.
Though the KKK is the most well-known among the organizations with unsavory views on racial and religious minorities in Orange County, it was by no means the only one. Other groups like the Native Sons and the John Birch Society, a conservative organization founded on a platform of preserving individual rights and the constitution, also had a chapter in the county.
Wacira Gethaiga, a Kenyan international student at Chapman College in the 1960’s, encountered the John Birch Society as he passed their headquarters walking from Chapman College to his friend’s house in Orange along Glassell Avenue. As he and his friend passed, people in the organization would see him and his friend and rush to shut the doors and windows. When he, curious about what kind of organization they were, one day knocked on the door, no one answered.
There was no one way in which white citizens maintained sundown towns across the United States. In some places, white residents rioted and pushed African-Americans and their communities out by destroying their lives and property. In other cases, it was as simple as moving away from places where African-Americans lived. Sometimes, property deeds specified that only white people could live on certain plots, whether they bought or rented the land. This was a widespread practice in Orange County. One such deed reads, “It is hereby covenanted and agreed by and between the parties hereto, and it is a part of the consideration of this conveyance, that…said lot, or any portion thereof, shall not be sold, transferred, leased, rented or mortgaged to any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race; nor any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race occupy or be permitted to occupy said lot or any portion thereof, except as the servant of the occupant thereof.”
Many Brea residents believed there was an ordinance that said that people of color were not allowed to stay in the town after dark. One claims that there was a sign posted that said the same. However, no evidence that either existed has ever been found. James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, never found an example of an ordinance-enforced sundown town in the United States. Nor would such an ordinance have been lawful under the Supreme Court decision Buchanan v. Warley, which declared housing discrimination on the basis of race unconstitutional for local governments. The most likely cause of the misunderstanding is that many people, white and black, simply did not know about the Buchanan v. Warley case. But black residents of Orange County had a deeper motivator than misinformation to keep them out of places like Brea and Orange at night.
In some instances, the police enforced the unofficial sundown rule, though the fear of being stopped and asked why they were there was a potent deterrent to people of color who might have otherwise had reason to remain in these places after nightfall. There is little evidence of encounters between police and black people who found themselves in Orange County’s sundown towns. However, one record exists in the form of Wacira Gethaiga’s oral history. While there were no African-American residents of Orange, there were a few African international students at Chapman University, Gethaiga among them. Because of discriminatory housing practices in and around Orange, they initially could not find housing off campus. Even when a white friend of theirs secured housing for them, the landlord would not let them live in the residence once they found out that the tenants would be black. As he was traveling back into Orange from his job in Anaheim, police often tailed Gethaiga’s car, an old two-seater Ford that he’d bought for a hundred dollars that could take him anywhere he wanted to go. Each time they stopped Gethaiga and realized that both the vehicle was intact and the law was unbroken, they would ask the ominous question: “What are you doing here?”
“I am going to Chapman College; I am a graduate student at Chapman College.” During the school year the situation worsened. When he gave his friends rides, the number of stops increased with the number of black bodies in his car.
He went to the college’s administration about the stops. The police’s solution was to have the pictures of all the black students on file so they could set them apart from other black people who might pass through, so they could isolate them and separate them. They wanted exceptions. “Well, we really don’t have any problem with your African students or anything like that, but we need to know who they are so we can know they’re not coming from someplace else.” It was an affront all its own.
“No. We are not criminals, and we don’t have to carry an identity pass.” Gethaiga and his peers refused. They were aware of what was going on around them, of the marches and sit-ins of the sixties Civil Rights movement, but they did not resist as part of a movement or for a cause. They would not be torn from their identity in the flash of a camera.
As Gethaiga and his peers faced down university officials, Dottie and Lincoln Mulkey began their own fight against Santa Ana landlords which would escalate to an examination of national policy. Dorothy “Dottie” Mulkey and her husband Lincoln moved to Santa Ana in 1962 after they’d been discharged from the U.S. Navy where they had met. The couple and their three children, the youngest of whom was just three months old, lived with Lincoln’s parents at first. They’d searched for apartments, but found no viable options in Little Texas, the neighborhood of Santa Ana where the black community was concentrated. However, when a woman at Dottie’s hair salon recommended they look elsewhere, they found an abundance of attractive options nearby advertised in the OC Register. Over the phone, Dottie and Lincoln arranged three appointments to view potential homes outside of the Little Texas community. Mysteriously, though, they found that each vacancy had been filled just before they got their chance to view. On the phone, housing had been abundant, but in person, there was not a single available apartment. Dottie contacted Orange County’s chapter of the NAACP. They sent a white couple to the same apartments to investigate. Each time, the apartments’ management approved the white couple where they had rejected Dottie and Lincoln. The Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963 should have protected them from this discrimination. It dictated that landlords and those selling property could not discriminate on the basis of race against potential buyers or tenants. However, the Proposition 14 referendum held the next year, which claimed to protect the rights of individual homeowners, saw the fair housing legislation repealed. The Mulkeys, unable to find housing solely because of their race, sued. “I wasn’t asking for the world, just an apartment; a new one for my baby.”
The NAACP and the ACLU, however, saw this case as an opportunity to instigate widespread housing reform. Backed by these two organizations along with the Second Baptist Church, with Proposition 14 in holding, Mulkey v. Reitman went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. It took a total of four years to obtain the ruling in their favor, but by that time, the Mulkeys had already moved into the apartment of one of the other landlords who had initially denied them their right to a place to live. He knew he could not endure a similar lawsuit. Yet at the same time, the Mulkeys received threats and harassment for their involvement in the case. Dottie received phone calls from those who wished to dissuade her. Her father-in-law maintained model homes for local realtor Tom Keyes who threatened his job. Still, Dottie Mulkey would not back down.
Mulkey v. Reitman established housing reform not just for Orange County but for the whole of the United States. Since it invalidated racial discrimination in property deeds and in practice, it is one of the largest contributing factors to the end of Orange County’s sundown towns.
The present black population of Orange County remains one of the lowest among metropolitan areas; it has stagnated around two percent since the ’80s. This is the result of a combination of different factors; however, the sundown towns of Orange County’s past are undeniably tied to this fact. When I first moved to Anaheim with my mother and my younger brother in 2006, I was nearly Ernestine’s age. I was just about to turn eleven years old. Anaheim was bigger and busier than my previous hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and everything was closer together. However, I could not help but note the conspicuous scarcity of people who looked like me. My family agreed. On the too-rare occasion that we saw another black person walking down the street or sitting in the window of a coffee shop or driving alongside us on the road, my mother would point and say, “Look, it’s one of us!” Eventually my older sister came with her daughter to live with us, and together we would roll our eyes, repress a smile. But we knew what she meant. Where were we?
Back in Shreveport the population was nearly half black. This was not notable to us at the time. A glance at our immediate surroundings rarely revealed to us that we were the only black person in a room. Our classmates never turned to us when history class got around to a discussion on slavery. We never had to fill the cavernous space of others’ expectations when they saw us as our race’s representatives. We never wondered whether others’ interactions with us would touch their interactions with the next black person they would meet. Or whether their interactions with the last black people they met were touching us. We never wondered how we measured up to what our friends saw on TV and in movies or in street fights they saw on YouTube. Because we were everywhere.
The adjustment in moving from a place with a particularly large population of black people to a place with a curiously small one led me to wonder why this might be the case. The concept of a sundown town came as a shock to me, as it does to many people living in the present day, and the fact that they had existed so close to my home compounded my consternation. I was familiar with the concept of people not wanting to interact with those who are different from them in their daily lives, but sundown towns banned people of color only at night, as if the darkness could hide the racism that perpetuated the trend. These communities reflected the nature of an attitude so deeply ingrained, but which no one would ever admit that they had, in a different light.
In all my research, I never found a person who expressed any desire to exclude black people from society or any individual who explicitly hated people of color. Yet the ugly tradition continued within their communities for decades. The hatred, the fear, the isolation that people of color in Orange County faced seemed to exist in subtext and unspoken understandings. Until it didn’t. And suddenly, they checked the time and had to leave town. Or someone was slamming a door or shuttering a window as they passed on the street. Or a landlord was regretfully informing them that their last vacancy had just been filled the same morning when the day before, there had been plenty of available apartments.
Some things look different now. For instance, racial covenants no longer appear in property deeds, but the same attitude persists. It is beneath the surface, in the dark. Until it isn’t. Until the principal of your school approaches you looking like he means business, only for the tension in his shoulders to leave once he sees your face. “I forgot we had an African-American student at the school.” Or until your landlord calls the police when she sees you sitting in the pool area reading a book with your legs dangling in the jacuzzi and gives them your description. “What’s going on!” the officer barks. It startles the hell out of you. You think that maybe you’re in danger until you realize the threat is you. They’d seen a strange man wandering through the apartments lately, sometimes digging through the trash. Perhaps they thought you were related to him. But through all of this you stay. The thought of leaving does not cross your mind as a solution, in part because you figure there’s no place you can go that guarantees these things will never happen. Mostly you stay because this is your home. Because in spite of it all, you’ve come to love Orange County.