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How I Conquered My Fear of Sundown Towns

How a round trip through old Southern backroads helped me face historic fears.

A few months ago, my brother texted me with a realization. His text read: “Our cousins say the phrase ‘I gotta go ahead and head home while it’s still early,’ which is exactly what our ancestors said because of sundown town laws.” His realization was correct. After all, this is the norm for a family whose roots are connected to Southern Georgia.

The meaning of sundown towns was never taught to me, but I always knew of their existence. Eight-year-old me noticed how stern and serious my mother was as she told me to arrive home when the street lights came on in the evening. Or, how my grandmother needed the entire house to be dark on the inside and outside as the sun was beginning to set. And my cousins who could belly-laugh for hours until the time was 4 p.m., and their keys were already in the ignition. My relatives and I were not actively thinking of sundown towns in these instances. We were simply continuing the rules and rituals of our elders who had no choice but to actively think about them.

My fixation, or anxiety about, sundown towns began in the spring of 2021. I watched television shows and films that were hailed as “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking,” but in actuality, these programs were graphic depictions of racial trauma porn set in the Jim Crow South. Even though I could not finish these programs, they were the gateway to my research into sundown towns. My search history was filled with keywords like “sundown town Florida,” “sundown town Georgia,” and when I started to feel anxious about what could happen to me, I searched, “Black women sundown town.”

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When I’d drive the four hours it took to see my family in North Florida, I found myself looking over my shoulder, and praying I’d get home before sundown. I yearned for the version of me who was not afraid to drive on the interstate. Oblivion could not be achieved if I continued to hide in fear, so when my partner suggested we take backroads and city highways for our next trip to Savannah, Georgia, I was eager.

On June 27, 2021, I drove from Tampa, Florida, to Savannah, Georgia, on interstate highways and southern backroads. Here’s how it went.

Before we arrive on the backroads (exit 326 EAST), we drive on the I-75 North for 70 miles. What’s nice about interstate travel is how strange sights quickly disappear. In a blink of an eye, the sight becomes an afterthought and something that will only be remembered or mentioned in a “guess-what-I-saw?” manner.

At about 45 miles prior to the 326 EAST exit, we pass an electric truck company, each truck adorned with waving confederate flags. The company’s promise? “Kind customer service.” We kept driving until we pass the antithesis of boring: Florida interstate billboards. A “Need help with erectile dysfunction?” billboard sits behind a billboard promoting vasectomy operations.

We are 15 miles from our country-backroad exit when we stop at Rest Area MM-346 Northbound. Everyone is making a beeline for either the bathrooms or vending machines. Our stop here is quick and I am not thinking of potential danger. I congratulate myself for just being present in the moment.

When we take exit 358 EAST off of I-75, we reach what I’d feared for months. But it feels as if the backroads have enveloped me in their twists and turns, hugging me tightly. Any anxiety that surrounded me has vanished. I stare outside the window, forcing myself to just be. There’s a sign promoting live baby gators. A dilapidated McDonald’s sits next to a modern-designed gas station. The roads undulate up and down, forcing us to brake every few seconds. This is Zuber, Florida. There’s a farmhouse with donkeys walking around outside, our previous president’s 2024 flag waving above them. Occasionally, a smokehouse or antique shop appears.

My solace is soon interrupted by plantation homes branded with family names, advertising their hospitality in the form of bed and breakfasts. I am familiar with seeing plantation homes, but what prickles the hair on my arms is the dates of establishment for these houses. Most, if not all, are pre-1865. I try not to entertain the lingering ball of anxiety that sits in the back of my throat.

Then we are in Citra, Florida. A white church sits on neatly cut grass. A Family Dollar and a Dollar General share the same sidewalk.  A place called “The Orange Shop” calls my name, but it is unfortunately closed on Sundays, like most stores in a small town would be. If you lived here, you probably know every other resident by first name, and maybe even last.

For 31 miles, the speed limit is a smooth 65 mph. There’s a bar surrounded by trees. And then nothing for 31 miles until we enter Hawthorne, Florida. An abandoned motel with broken windows is filled with leaves and plants. Gas here is $2.98/gallon.

When we reach Waldo, the sun starts to set. Shockingly, I don’t feel a tinge of nervousness. About 12 miles later, we reach Starke, Florida, and make a stop at the Lawtey Fast Track Gas station. I feel confident until I see people surrounding the entrance of the gas station. My mind leads me to believe my throat is swelling, but the swelling suddenly stops when we reach the crowd to see everyone admiring stray kittens. I reassure myself once more that nothing is going to happen here, and a woman holds the store door open for me and smiles.

Finally, we cross state lines into Georgia, and I feel comfortable. In Jessup, we pull over in the grass to help a baby yellow-bellied slider turtle cross the road. My partner gently places him in a small pond. The turtle is hesitant at first, but in an instant, he swims confidently, never looking back at us.

For the rest of the drive, I decide to be like the turtle: hesitant, but confident. I will never be oblivious like I once wished because of who I am: a Black woman. My consumption of media resulted in a paranoid version of myself who was afraid to travel, to explore, and to just be. One can be cautious, but also eager for new sights and travel experiences. Will I ever take country backroads to another destination? That is to be determined. What is determined, though, is my fear of sundown towns is now conquered.

johankahlstrom13 February 9, 2022

What is the town in the photo at the top of the article?