"This used to be a sundown county," the director responded in answer to my question.We were standing around talking with the designers and some of the cast after the opening night performance of an original community based play. I heard the comment, clearly I did because it resonated with me as the conversation kept moving along without me. I'd asked a question, the director answered it and my brain just went on vacation. It kept rambling around in my head, like hearing a piece of music or a song that just keeps repeating over and over in your mind, "This used to be a sundown county."
Seriously, for a moment I thought maybe it meant something else. It couldn't mean what I thought it meant, surely not? Maybe I misheard him, misunderstood him.
My colleague and I had driven a couple hours north for the pre-show reception and opening night performance of a play about this gorgeous little community in the mountains of northeast Georgia, not far from the Tennessee line in the Appalachian foothills. It was a very pleasant drive up, the higher up we went the cooler it got, the heat and humidity began to melt away; the houses were spread out, there were working farms, horses, cows, and other assorted wildlife and cattle. (I love looking at cattle and wild life while in a heavily armored moving vehicle.)
I've seen community centered original plays before but was especially interested to see the work of this playwright who has been doing this work for twenty years or more. Unlike traditional plays, this work begins with collecting stories from the community, working with them to figure out a through line that connects all the stories together, and the playwright weaves the stories into a play, a story about the community. Most often a professional team of directors and designers will come in to handle production elements. The community is the cast, the banker, the teacher, mom and grandpa, rehearse for weeks and weeks remembering lines, learning blocking, and everyone in the whole town is excited to pitch in and help however they can.
When we drove into the yard that afternoon for the pre-show reception, we were at a beautiful old house turned into a restaurant with big porches and a full house of people; folks were milling around outside, and all throughout this rather large expansive house. As we wandered around saying hello and introducing ourselves to the local arts council board and staff, and guests, I could not help but note that I was the sole person with a permanent tan. (And as I stood out, they noticed me too. "So, who are you with?")
As we drove in a caravan to the cultural center for the performance, I passed a black woman driving in the opposite direction. I wasn't totally alone. Yes!
As the auditorium began to fill though, I could see that I was going to hold the "only" award that evening. The play was quite lovely, some of the stories were really interesting, especially the piece about moonshiners in the mountains, how that line of work came to be, and how they took care of each other when the "Revenuers" came calling. There were ghost stories, and fabulous puppet work by a puppet maker from Minneapolis. There was a young kid in the cast who clearly was either Native American or from Central or South America, singing with a quartet of young men serving as sort wandering troubadours.
Of course when the lights came up and I've just spent two plus hours watching a play about the community, with community members in the show and in the audience, and there were no black people in the cast, I had to ask. "What happened to the black people? Why weren't they part of this? There are black people here, aren't there?"
And the answer to that question was, "Well, this used to be a sundown county. There are about 800 black people in the town."
If I could my head would have spun around on my neck like that chick in the Exorcist. 800??? (Yes, I know, I was focused on the wrong piece of information.) 800? You mean 8000, right?
There are approximately 20,000 in White County. Yes, White county. (You can't make this stuff up, I tell you.) This pretty little town is unincorporated. A census update for 2007 says that the African American population in White County is 2.17 percent, and the population of Hispanics, Latinos is 1.15 percent. Given that White County covers a pretty big territory with two other fairly good sized towns, it is a safe bet that the number of black folks for that little town is indeed, 800.
So where the heck did they go? Well, as they must have been told often enough over the decades and throughout that period of strict segregation, "Don't let the sun set on your ass in White County," I suspect that they took it to heart.
Before heading to bed that night in White County, a dear friend and colleague opened her home to us so we wouldn't have to drive back down the mountain in the dark, you know I kept returning to this issue. (If there was a nit to pick here, I picked it. I really wanted to understand.) We stayed up late into the night talking about the facts of life living in the south today, four southern white women and me. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that the cultural center tried to reach out to the black community but were rebuffed. It seems that there is a white woman in town, she's the gatekeeper to the black community and she was not amused nor inclined to assist. I flashed back to a weather beaten little structure on the grounds of the cultural center. It was little more than a shack that had been moved to the grounds of the cultural center over the past year, work was underway to try to document and preserve it. "That is the only remaining slave cabin left in the county," I was told.
Before I fell off to sleep I wondered what it must have been like for black folks in White county not too long ago, then mused about the fact that they would have been knocking down the doors and dragged all our happy butts off to jail or worst. Our hosts are a gay couple! What a day what a day.