US News Life in One of the Whitest Towns in America
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I got into town just after sunset. The lights were on at a place called the Brick House Grill, and if you were out on South Main Street on a Friday night in February, chances are, that’s where you were going. So I went in, too.
I took a seat at the bar. A man two stools over from me struck up a conversation. I told him I was a journalist from Chicago and asked him to tell me about this town. “You know how this town is called Anna?” he started. “That’s for ‘Ain’t No N*****s Allowed.’” He laughed, shook his head, and took a sip of his beer.
The man was white. I am white. Everyone else in that restaurant in Anna was white.
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Later that night, I realized what shook me most about our conversation: He didn’t pause before he said what he said. He didn’t look around the room to see whether anyone could hear us. He didn’t lower his voice. He just said it.
I first learned about Anna in a book titled N****r, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in ___.”, about the thousands of communities across the country that, for much of the 20th century, kept themselves white. The term “sundown town” applies to places that, via policy, violence, or both, barred black people from town after dark; as the book explains, the phrase is derived from “the signs that many of [these places] formerly sported at their corporate limits—signs that usually said
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I picked up the book in part because its author, James W. Loewen, a sociologist who taught at the University of Vermont and at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, is from Decatur, Illinois. Much of his research on sundown towns led him back to his home state, where I now live and which I wanted to better understand.
When Loewen began his research in 1999, he thought he’d find just a handful of sundown towns and “recovering” sundown towns, as he calls them, in Illinois. Instead, he found hundreds, from neighborhoods on Chicago’s North Shore to suburbs in the center of the state to small towns in southern Illinois, such as Anna.
But the stories of how these communities became or stayed mostly white are often unknown, ignored, or not fully told. Loewen said sundown towns sprang up all around the country from 1890 to 1940, a period he calls the “nadir” of race relations in America. “For the small, independent towns all around the state that are still all white or almost all white, it’s like the civil-rights movement never happened,” he told me.
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Anna’s historical resistance to black people is, and has long been, well known in the region. Even though it may never have been codified, I found references to the fact that black people weren’t allowed to live in Anna in newspaper articles from as early as 1903. In that particular reference, a woman from Anna who worked as a hotel maid in Indianapolis was quoted as saying, “I never saw more than 10 negroes in all my life until I was 18 ... as a negro is not allowed to stop in our little village of Anna.”
Over the past two years, I visited the town several times to try to understand where Anna's history had left the town today. I talked with people going about their lives—in the library, the Farm Fresh milk store, the Blue Boar restaurant, the city’s park, the Walmart parking lot, and other pockets of Anna. I talked with public officials, historians, and longtime residents. I visited a grave in the Anna Cemetery that belongs to the man deemed by a local newspaper in 1916 to be “the only colored man who has ever lived in this city,” and I spent some time with one of the few black families (if not the only one) living in Anna today.
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Still, I’m not going to claim I know Anna’s full story—I’m an outsider. But after hearing A-N-N-A said aloud that night, I realized my race made me a sort of insider, too. Would the man who first recited A-N-N-A have done so if I weren’t white? Nearly everyone I met knew what “Anna” stands for—whether they heard it first as a “joke” at school or from their grandparents or just from living here long enough. Most people said they wished the A-N-N-A reputation would just go away and were quick to say Anna wasn’t “like that” anymore.
Like what? I’d ask. If Anna has changed, how?
Anna is a city of a little more than 4,000 people located in the middle of Union County, where soybean fields and flatlands to the north give way to the forests and sandstone canyons of southern Illinois. Here, “Illinois is no longer ‘the Prairie state,’” a correspondent for New York’s Evening Post wrote in 1858 while covering the third Lincoln-Douglas debate, which was held in Jonesboro, a small town that shares a border with Anna.
In fact, many of Anna’s earliest residents were from Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. In the years leading up to the Civil War, “family lines in the South still existed with these people of the new Midwest,” wrote the late Anna resident George E. Parks in 1983 in History of Union County, and some residents remained sympathetic to their southern home states. Even today, southern Illinois has more in common culturally with Kentucky and Missouri than with the rest of the state; for years, Confederate battle flags were draped on a storefront on Anna’s Main Street without much objection.
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For much of the 20th century, Anna was almost entirely white, except for a handful of black residents at different times. Around 1980, Anna’s black population grew to about a few dozen residents. Today, Anna is one of the whitest municipalities in southern Illinois—according to the 2010 census, 95.7 percent of its citizens are white—and its black population hasn’t changed much since that modest uptick nearly 40 years ago, according to census data.
Some residents of Anna describe their town as safe, family-centric, and quaint, and contrast these features with the “problems” they perceive in bigger, less white neighbors such as Carbondale, a city about 20 miles north of Anna that is home to Southern Illinois University, and Cairo, about 35 miles south of Anna, located at the state’s southernmost tip.
Cairo has long been emblematic of a future that Anna fears: the decline of a once-thriving town. Cairo’s population, roughly 2,500, is now about half of what it was in 1990, though people began leaving earlier. Some of the white people who left Cairo blamed changes in the city—its population loss, the flight of business, episodes of violence during the civil-rights era—on black people. Some people still do.
Like many other small towns, Anna has lost industry. The makers of Bunny Bread—an old jingle went—and Florsheim shoes both closed factories in the early 1990s. But the city is still commercially alive. A Walmart and fast-food chains now cluster in Anna’s east end, near U.S. Highway 51. Independent businesses run up and down Main Street.
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The Union County Museum sits about five miles north of Anna in Cobden, a community known for its apple and peach orchards. Patrick Brumleve, who oversees the museum as the president of the Union County Historical and Genealogical Society, said Anna was named after Anna Davie, the wife of the man who founded the town in 1854. But he said he gets asked every so often about A-N-N-A by outsiders like me.
As he told me about Anna’s origins, he pointed me to a book of letters published in the Jonesboro Gazette, written by the newspaper’s editor, James Evans, who left his job in 1862 to join the 109th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment for the Union Army—but who, along with seven other officers from the 109th, was discharged from the Union Army for disloyalty.
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Though Brumleve said many residents supported the preservation of the Union, Evans’s support was contingent on the continuation of slavery, and his letters show his increasing contempt for the war as the Lincoln administration took steps toward emancipation. He calls black people animals. He complains that black soldiers are treated better than white soldiers. He warns that freed black men will take jobs away from white men. When he returned home and resumed his role as editor, he wrote that he and the other officers were “perfectly satisfied of the fact that fighting to free the n****r is no wise [or] desirable task.”
Stories of intimidation and violence against black people—and against white people who tried to employ them—in Anna continued for decades after the war. While the details of each incident are often vague or contradictory, newspaper accounts, oral-history archives, and other documents chronicle a narrative of Anna’s emerging reputation as A-N-N-A.
In 1865, a black man walking toward Anna along railroad tracks outside town was shot and killed in what the Chicago Tribune said was “supposed to have been done by some Copperhead wretch”—Copperhead being slang for northerners sympathetic to the Confederacy—“as the disposition of the tribe here is to kill or drive off all n****rs.”
And in 1874, during Reconstruction, white residents in Anna were met with demands from what the Cairo Bulletin called “ku-klux demonstrations” that they fire any black people employed in the area and “send the negroes out of the county or suffer the consequences.”
By the turn of the century, Anna—at least according to the Jonesboro Gazette—was grateful it wasn’t wrapped up in what the newspaper deemed a “race problem” in places where “the negro forms a considerable population”; in Cairo, for example, about 40 percent of residents were black, and many of them were formerly enslaved people who sought new lives in supposedly “free” states such as Illinois. “How fortunate we are to have so little of ‘darkest Africa’ among us,” the Gazette wrote in January 1903, adding that it would be “presumptuous to place the negro in the places where only white men should fill as long as this is a white man’s country.”
Then, in a moment that would lodge itself in regional memory, a 23-year-old white woman from Anna was found dead in November 1909 in an alley in Cairo. Coincidentally, her name was Anna—Anna Pelley. Bloodhounds, after picking up the scent from a piece of cloth used to gag her, led Cairo police to arrest a black man named William James, an employee of the Cairo Ice and Coal Company, according to the Cairo Bulletin. Less than 72 hours later, without a trial and after the county sheriff unsuccessfully tried to spirit James out of town to safety, residents took the law into their own hands.
They led James to a pair of steel arches that spanned the intersection in the center of Cairo’s commercial district, which was crowded with thousands of onlookers, most of whom came as word spread about James’s arrest. With a rope around his neck, the Bulletin reported, James confessed. The mob pulled him up to hang him, but the rope broke, so they shot him repeatedly instead. They then dragged his body through the streets, set it on fire, and later cut off his head and stuck it on a hitching post.
Ruel Hindman, who lived in Anna, was 7 at the time. “As I remember, in order to prove to the Anna people that he had been lynched, I think they brought one of his legs back to Anna,” Hindman recalled in the 1970s, as part of an oral-history project at southern Illinois’s Shawnee Community College. (Hindman died in 1998.)
The night after James was killed, a band of men from Anna headed for a nearby quarry, which employed a number of black men. About 10 workers fled to the woods. “We’re much obliged to the managers of the [quarry] if they will confine their force to whites in the future,” the Jonesboro Gazette wrote, in language and thinking typical of the paper at the time.
Hindman, in his interview, said that any black people who worked or lived in Anna were “driven out” of town after the Anna Pelley incident in 1909. There was one exception: the Sales family. John and Emily Sales had lived together in Anna for 50 years, in a small home on an alley. He worked “odd jobs,” according to the 1910 census, and she was a “washerwoman,” cleaning clothes. They were formerly enslaved, having fled Tennessee as the Civil War ended and eventually settled in Anna in 1867, according to Emily’s obituary in the Jonesboro Gazette.
John Sales was in his mid 90s when he died in August 1916. The Gazette wrote, “The only colored man who has ever lived in this city, died at his home Sunday night.” Emily Sales died in Anna in 1932. (Their niece, Nora, who lived in the same house, died about 30 years later.) Today, Emily and John share a small tombstone in the Anna Cemetery. About 100 steps away is the grave of Anna Pelley, marked by a sculpture of a woman on her knees, crying, with the inscription: “A life sacrificed but remembered by friends.”
Michael Hunter leaned forward in his camouflage-printed office chair. When I met him last year, Hunter was the chief of Anna’s police department, and I was curious whether the A-N-N-A reputation affected how local officials did their jobs. “I was born here and lived in the South for many years, so I don’t see skin color,” said Hunter, who retired in May after nearly two decades on the force. Hunter told me that when he’d pull over black motorists, they would sometimes tell him during traffic stops that they knew what Anna stood for and why he’d stopped them. He didn’t like it when people assumed he was racist.
“I worked nights for 13 years. I can’t tell what color anybody is at night,” Hunter said. “So that always bothered me, that that was their perception.” Racism is not a problem in Anna, he said, at least no more than it is in the rest of the country.
Anna’s mayor, Steve Hartline, agreed. “It’s a shame that wording is even out there when it comes to Anna,” Hartline said. “It’s really sad. I’m just sorry we have to talk about that.” He added: “That is not the Anna I know.”
Hartline grew up in Cobden, the town just north of Anna. He’s been Anna’s mayor for nearly 20 years, and he served in its police department for 15 years before that. He said he can’t think of a single incident in Anna that had race at its center that had taken place in his years of public service.
But these incidents happened. In March 2013, four young white men attacked a black 16-year-old in a parking lot behind a furniture store on Main Street. According to police reports, one of the suspects allegedly tried to sodomize the victim with either a tire iron or an ax handle. Although one of the young men told police they attacked the victim because he was black, the police did not charge the four men with a hate crime.
In 2017, in the aftermath of the white-supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a white Anna resident named Tabitha Tripp said at a Union County board meeting that she was concerned about hate incidents in the county, and she asked the county commissioners to consider a resolution, identical to one that had recently passed the Illinois House, condemning hate groups.
The proposal was never brought up for a vote, in part because commissioners said they didn’t believe it was their job to address such concerns. “The more you talk about it, it just creates that issue more,” Max Miller, Union County’s board chairman, told me. “I just didn’t think it was worth talking about.”
Some sundown towns in the Midwest have begun to confront their legacies. In March 2015, the city council of Goshen, Indiana, voted 6–0 to“A Resolution Acknowledging the Racially Exclusionary Past of Goshen, Indiana, as a ‘Sundown Town.’” In late 2016, the mayor of La Crosse, Wisconsin, formally apologized for the city’s history of racial exclusion and signed a proclamation to work toward racial equality. “We’ve got issues and are not shirking away from those issues,” Mayor Tim Kabat, who is white, told . “We recognize this is a problem and need to do something about it.”
The Union County Board of Commissioners is all white. So is the Anna city council, the Anna Police Department, and every teacher at Anna-Jonesboro High School, the public high school serving Anna. “I wish we had more diversity on our staff,” said Brett Detering, the school’s principal.
Darrel Dexter, a local historian who lives in Jonesboro and teaches high-school social studies in nearby Tamms, said that many of his black students see Anna as a “racist place.” If people in Anna want their town to shed that reputation, he said, they’ll have to reckon with the history of A-N-N-A. “What people need to do is to say, ‘Yes, this happened. We’re sorry it happened ... It’s a part of our heritage, but we’re changing that,’” Dexter said. “And until people are willing to at least acknowledge that it’s there, there’s not going to be any change.”
An Anna resident named Randy Miller, who is white, said that most people in town, including him, don’t know of any specific incident that led Anna to become known as A-N-N-A. But, he said, it’s not something people there are proud of. “Our forefathers have gone through and made decisions that weren’t the greatest things in the world,” Miller said. “But at what point do we move on from that, you know? I mean, at what point do we heal instead of coming back and going, ‘Let’s rip this wound open again?’ … There’s got to be a solution, not just a revisiting of the problem.” When he said this, he meant that everyone—white people, black people, outsiders like me—should focus on how to move forward.
Tripp’s 18-year-old son, Gavin, graduated from Anna-Jonesboro High in the spring. He said people his age in the surrounding counties know about the lore of A-N-N-A and consider Anna to be “just a bad place for people that are different.”
“They don’t want to come here,” Gavin added. “So that doesn’t allow us to be exposed to different people or different ethnicities.” Given this, he’s not sure he’ll stay in Anna after college.
He recalled an incident in 2016, when he was leaving the Farm Fresh milk store after school. “Somebody just drove by and yelled out the window, ‘You’re a n****r lover,’” Gavin said. At the time, he was dating a girl who was biracial. He said he hadn’t witnessed that kind of public racism in Anna before. “I didn’t think it would come out of somebody’s mouth, straight to my face,” he said.
One afternoon in Anna—during my second visit, in May 2018—I approached two postal workers, both of them white, loading mail trucks behind the town’s post office and asked them where I could find someone who wasn’t white. “You’ve come to the wrong town,” one of them said. “For whatever reason, it’s just one of those towns, I guess,” his co-worker added.
But there are some black people here, and more, it seems, during the workday. One woman who works in the area and who is black told me she hates it when she’s assigned a shift in the town. She fills up her car’s gas tank before going to work so that she spends as little time in Anna as possible. She knows what A-N-N-A stands for, and she doesn’t want to take any chances. (She asked me not to publish her name, out of concern for her safety.)
Black people also work at Choate Developmental Center, a state mental-health facility in Anna. Ralph Smith, 30, has been employed there for two years. I met him while he was playing basketball with his young son in the park. People around the area, not just in Anna, have called him derogatory names based on his race, he said. One time it happened while he was pumping gas. “But all of that stuff don’t get me down ... People just don’t have enough education or just haven’t been around a lot,” said Smith, who lives about 30 minutes outside Anna.
When friends of Smith’s learn that he works in Anna, sometimes he gets questions and warnings. They ask him what he’s doing out there; doesn’t he know Anna is a sundown town? “You’d better be safe,” they tell him. Smith shrugs it off. “I think it needs more flavor around here for sure, but everything needs to be more mixed,” he said. “I think the whole world needs to change—not just Anna. The whole world.”
Anna’s Walmart draws a more diverse crowd. James Taylor, a 61-year-old known as Big T in Cairo, where he lives, was shopping there on a Saturday afternoon when I met him. “In my younger days ... you weren’t allowed up here after dark, period,” Taylor said in the parking lot as he loaded grocery bags into his car. He added, “It was just a racist town.”
For years, he avoided Anna. He now comes to town to go to Walmart and to get his car washed. Taylor said he’s noticed more black people in Anna in the past 10 years—“I take my hat off to that”—but, he said, changing Anna’s reputation is going to take a while. “Old heads ain’t died off yet,” he explained.
When Easter Smith opened the door, her house smelled like dinner. Smith, 38, moved to Anna in 2016 with her six children: Arieh, 19; Atarah, 18; Amiyah, 16; Arojae, 15; Asaiah, 12; and Aseana, 11. Smith thought hers was the only black family in Anna when she arrived, though she thinks a few more families have moved in since.
Smith never thought she would live here. Years before, when she was new to Illinois and living in Murphysboro, about 25 miles north, she got lost driving somewhere on U.S. Highway 51 after dark and called her husband for directions. She described what she saw, and he knew she was in Anna. “Bae, drive fast and keep going,” she remembers him saying.
But after a series of incidents that made her feel unsafe in Murphysboro, Smith said, she wanted out. Her eldest son, Arieh Hart, had an idea. He had a friend who lived in Anna and had spent weekends there. He’d grown to like it. The high school was good, and it had a strong sports program. He felt he and his brothers and sisters would thrive.
Yet when Smith ran the idea by friends and school guidance counselors, just about everyone asked her the same thing: Don’t you know what A-N-N-A stands for? “The look on their faces was terror,” Smith said.
She prayed. She trusted God, and she trusted her son. She told her husband that Anna was the place they needed to be. He disagreed. He didn’t go with her. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) “I have to do what women and mothers have to do,” Smith said. “And that’s make a better situation for your kids.”
Before the family moved to Anna, Smith sat her kids down and discussed how to respond if someone called them the N-word, if they were discriminated against at school, or if they didn’t feel comfortable. They were not to lash out or fight.
In the family’s first few months in Anna, Atarah and Amiyah received some naive questions from their white classmates. Is that your real hair? Can I touch it? How do you run so fast? How do you dance like that? For the most part, it was what they expected. But it hurt. When Atarah made the high-school basketball team, someone sent her a screenshot of a message telling her teammates to be nice to her because she is black. That made her feel like her blackness was seen as a threat.
The sisters have a slew of similar stories. And when they recounted some of those stories to me, they talked over each other and finished each other’s sentences. They laughed about how sometimes white people in Anna can be overly nice to them. When I went to church with the family one morning, I watched a white woman touch Atarah’s hair and tell her she was beautiful, “like Beyoncé.”
Arieh pointed out that since they’ve lived in Anna, his white friends here have taught him how to do things like catch fish, drive ATVs, and shoot guns. “We just learn from each other,” Arieh said. “And that’s what I love.”
Arieh said he was called the N-word once during a football game against nearby DuQuoin High School. He kept his composure. Sometime later, a few students at Anna-Jonesboro High made an Instagram account and anonymously made fun of classmates by posting photos of them along with derogatory captions, Smith said. They posted a photo of Arieh and wrote a caption calling him the N-word and Anna’s “Jackie Robinson.” The school disciplined the students behind the account. Some white parents, particularly upset about the post featuring Arieh, spoke to administrators about it, Smith said. That meant a lot to her.
In 2018, Arieh won Illinois’s high-school state wrestling championship for his weight class. As his mother followed the van carrying him and other members of the Anna-Jonesboro wrestling team back into town after the finals, people lined up on Main Street to wave and clap and cheer. Some held signs: We ❤️ You, Arieh read one. State Champ #1 read another. Smith still tears up thinking about it.
This is the kind of thing that makes her wish she had moved to Anna sooner. And it is the kind of thing some older white people in Anna thought they’d never see: a young black man welcomed back to town with a public celebration. Smith got Facebook messages from people she’d never met. “I don’t know you or your son personally,” one message read. “And I think it has to be said that what your son has done is nothing short of a miracle … What I’m talking about is seeing him bring that community together. Anyone who knows the history of Anna-Jonesboro would never in a million years imagine something like this would ever happen … Seeing this honestly gives me hope that people can and do change.”
Nevertheless, three years after Smith moved to Anna, her family still has to deal with racist comments. On the first day of Amiyah’s senior year at Anna-Jonesboro High, students gathered before class outside the school for impromptu group photos. One boy, Amiyah told Smith, yelled to her, “Come on, blackie, and get in the photo.” Amiyah looked at him, turned around, and walked away.
Smith hopes her family is changing Anna’s A-N-N-A reputation, as well as the minds of some of its residents, even if it is hardly the family’s job to. Growing up near Phoenix, Smith said her family’s friends called them “the Huxtables,” a reference to the upper-middle-class black family of The Cosby Show. She feels her parents, and the high standards they set, prepared her well for her current life: “If anybody was going to come to Anna, God picked somebody that had the right credentials to be able to come here,” she said.
Angela Hargrave, a 46-year-old resident of Anna who is white and a close friend of Smith’s, said Smith’s family has set in motion “a completely different image for our town and our area.” “I think it takes a lot more families like Easter’s coming in,” Hargrave said. “But I also feel like it takes all of us that don’t feel that way to step forward and to be brave enough to say, ‘No, that is not what we’re about.’”
Still, Smith often thinks twice about simple decisions white people seldom give much thought to—for example, which black friends she can invite to town, because she’s not sure they’ll all be received well. There are some she’s decided not to have over: “I'm not that uppity friend that I'm too good for them now, but I'm not introducing them to my friends here … I’m scared that I will be looked at different for entertaining them.” These kinds of calculations, she said, can be exhausting.
Smith told me her family feels pressure to always be on its best behavior. “I mean, that’s just how we were taught,” she said. “Act like the camera’s on, act like somebody is following you, act like somebody is watching you, because nine times out of 10, they are.”
On a visit to southern Illinois this spring, I went to the spot in Cairo where William James was lynched 110 years earlier. There, children glided on bicycles from the levee road along the Ohio River, down through the intersection where the steel arches stood. Patches of tiled sidewalk that once led into storefronts now faded into dirt.
When I called James Taylor, the man I had met at the Anna Walmart months before, he told me there was someone in Cairo I should meet. I hopped into the backseat of Taylor’s blue station wagon, and a man named Gregory Walker, 69, sat in the passenger seat. Walker told me about a sign that he said used to be posted near Anna’s city limits. “It said No N****rs Allowed,” Walker remembered.
“Have you ever seen the population signs?” he asked me. The green ones with white letters. “[It looked] just like that,” he added. “And it was sitting right next to the population sign.” I’ve heard about some version of this sign from a few people in Anna, but I have yet to find physical proof of it—a document, a photo, anything. In a way, though, it doesn’t matter. Because whether or not that sign really existed, it exists in the minds of many black southern Illinoisans who know what the name of the town stands for.
I told Walker about Easter Smith and Arieh Hart. “Out of 5,000 people up there, you come up with one family?” he said, laughing. “That should tell you something right there.” As I drove back into Anna later that day, I passed the sign marking its border and population. ANNA, it reads. 4500. And under it is another sign that looks just like it, a green sign with white letters. It was added since the last time I had been in town. Home of Arieh Hart, it reads. 2018 IHSA 1A 152 LB Wrestling Champion.
This article is a collaboration between The Atlanticand ProPublica Illinois.to read more stories from ProPublica.
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