In HBO’s Lovecraft Country, available here on Sky Atlantic, Atticus (Jonathan Majors), George (Courtney B. Vance), and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) battle towering beasts and otherworldly monsters. But, the most unsettling parts of the show happen when the trio are traveling to reach these intimidating creatures. The must venture through sundown towns where they experience hate, violence, and discrimination, particularly from law enforcement. The historically accurate scenes put the United States’s dark, racist history (and present) at the forefront and make the series even more chilling.
During the 1950s-set series premiere, Atticus and co. accidentally drive through a sundown town and are quickly pulled over by a cop. The police officer threatens fatal violence for violating the city’s restrictions and chases the group out of town, which leads to the series’ first major twist.. But as the characters stay on the road for this season, the dangerous presence of sundown towns constantly hangs over their heads. Atticus, George, and Letitia have to carefully navigate through places where they are clearly unwelcome.
This intense interaction with the police in a sundown town isn’t a random, heart-racing moment the writers’ room invented. The scene reflects the real danger Black people faced during the mid-1950s and long before. America’s Black Holocaust Museum marks the beginning of sundown towns around 1890, during the Reconstruction Era. These municipalities were created by white Americans across the country, for white people only. In some of these areas, white people had driven Black people from the region and then placed a sundown sign in town. A typical sign would read “N-----, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in ___.” Other places passed laws that prevented Blacks from being in the city after dark (as shown in the first Lovecraft Country episode), owning land, or renting property. Jewish, Mexican, Chinese, Indigenous peoples, and other minority groups were also barred from sundown towns. Anyone who didn’t follow the rules was harassed or killed.
Since Lovecraft Country, based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, portrays overt racism in the mid-1950s, the audience might immediately think the show is set in states that were part of the Confederacy. However, the series actually takes place throughout real and fictional towns in New England, where most of influential (and notoriously racist) horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s stories occurred. This factually checks out because sundown towns popped up throughout the country, particularly along Route 66. The ABHM (located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) lists Illinois, where Route 66 begins, as having at least 456 sundown towns, while a state in the Deep South like Mississippi only has about six.
In fact, a 2010 New York Times piece pointed out the all-white demographic of Eleanor, West Virginia and its ties to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The article lists Greenbelt, Maryland, Greenhills, Ohio, and Hanford, Washington as some of the few sundown towns deliberately created by his administration during the Depression. Even so-called liberal states like California had sundown towns in places like Culver City and Glendale.
The numbers reported in a 2016 article in The Atlantic’s about the racist history of Route 66 are more alarming: In 1930, 44 out of 89 counties along Route 66 were sundown towns. When traveling along Route 66, Blacks knew to avoid businesses that had the K’s in the title like “Kozy Kottage Kamp” because it signalled that these were Ku Klux Klan establishments. Another way Blacks stayed safe was by carrying a chauffeur’s hat with them to stop law enforcement from harassing them if they were seen driving an upscale vehicle. But, the main source of protection for Blacks during this time period was The Negro Motorist Green Book written by Black postal worker Victor Hugo Green in 1936. The cover warned: “Always Carry Your Green Book With You —You May Need It.”
When the segregation-era book was originally published, it was meant to be a guide for Black residents in New York City. The following year, Green released a national issue that informed Blacks of Black-owned businesses and hotels, restaurants, and other businesses they could enter without facing discrimination or violence. In Lovecraft Country, Atticus carries around a fictionalised version of Green’s book titled “The Safe Negro Travel Guide” written by his Uncle George.
But sundown towns aren’t exactly a thing of the past. There are still cities that exist now with all-white communities. While minority groups might not carry around a book today to alert them where they’ll be safe, they recognise more subtle signs to look for. Instead of overtly racist language, businesses on Route 66 post “American Owned” signs which means they are “Not Owned by Immigrants,” The Atlantic explains.
The history and continued existence of these towns adds another layer of uneasiness when watching Lovecraft Country as it shows how fearful Blacks were of sundown towns. These scenes deliver a second punch: The knowledge that this is, in many ways, still a reality for people of colour who encounter businesses with discriminatory practices today.