HBO's Lovecraft Country Exposes the Dark History of America's "Sundown Towns"

HBO's Lovecraft Country premiere sees a trio of African-American characters in 1950s Chicago trying to locate a missing family member who vanished in the "Lovecraft Country" region of Massachusetts. The road trip brings Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), "Uncle" George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), and Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollet) into contact with horrific creatures of the occult - but those monsters are not the scariest things the group faces. The cross-country journey forces the group into a harrowing life or death chase to escape a "Sundown Town," which is indeed a very real (and dark) part of America's history.

Warning: Lovecraft Country SPOILERS Follow!

Atticus, Geroge, and Leti arrive in Devon Country in the Northeast (Pennsylvania?), and stop their car on the side of the road, trying to get their bearings for the next leg of the journey. During that rest period, the trio is happened upon by the infamously racist Devon County sheriff, who lines them up and demands to know why the group is in the area. George explains that they are simply taking a bathroom break, but the sheriff isn't interested in simply letting them be.

The lawman asks Geroge, Atticus, and Leti if they know what "Sundown Towns" are, and when they acknowledge they do, he tells them they are in a "sundown county." He then makes the not-so-subtle threat that if he had found them "pissing like animals" after sundown, it would be his duty to lynch them. What unfolds next is arguably Lovecraft Country's tensest scene, as the Atticus and co. have to outrace the sheriff to the country line before the sun falls, and seals their fate.

HBO Lovecraft Country What Are Sundown Towns Explained
(Photo: HBO)

In real life, Sundown Towns (and Sundown Counties or Sundown Suburbs) have been a part of American culture ever since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, and the implementation of the Jim Crow laws. The purpose was to exclude blacks and other non-whites from taking up residence in all-white areas, using a combination of discriminatory local laws and mandates, intimidation tactics, or outright violence. Signs were usually displayed to let people of color know to be out of the region by sundown or face harsh penalties, which could range from fines and imprisonment to outright assault and/or murder. The Sundown Town mandate gave these barbaric acts a veil of instituted legality that took many years to overturn.

While it would be easy to say that Sundown Towns are now things of the past, the truth is much less certain. Sundown Towns operated in murky areas of the official record - presumably on purpose. There's circumstantial evidence that these areas existed (old signs or ads, etc.), but very little in the way of official record or ordinance about the mandate. Nor do we have a clear record of which cities, towns, suburbs, or other regions participated in it, and for how long. Historians debate the details, but it's suspected that hundreds of cities or municipalities in America (in the North as well as the South) have been Sundown Towns at some point in their history. It's also suspected that while the practice was largely killed off following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it's not completely gone in some places, even today.

As the Sundown Town scene in Lovecraft Country reminds us, the old ways still feel plenty new.

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Lovecraft Country airs Sundays on HBO.