In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, social media was flooded with painful personal stories about navigating life amid a society fueled by racism. Every story I read was impactful in its own way. But on May 30, 2020, when I read my friend and Red Cross colleague Annette Rowland’s Facebook post, I wanted to pack-up my old VW, head to DC, protest my ass off and then find a job working for the ACLU. Thanks to technology though, I quickly realized I could augment the pleas of both friends and strangers right from the pandemic-free environment of my very own home – by leveraging my writer’s voice to help cultivate permanent change.
Author’s Note: This blog includes direct quotes involving the use of offensive racial epithets.
Annette Rowland: Speak Up & Sundown Towns
By Ashley Henyan
“Growing up, my parents gave me hints at what the world is like for people with dark skin,” Annette Rowland told me over the phone as we discussed her experiences living with racism in Birmingham, Alabama. “But when it happens to you, it opens up a whole new perspective.”
Our conversation lasted the better part of an hour and the entire time we spoke, the 34-year old mom of two fought hard to hold back tears. This was a side of Annette I had never seen before.
You see, during my tenure as a communicator with the American Red Cross, I had come to know her as a strong, smart, sophisticated woman. In fact, until about six months ago (when I took a different position within the organization) she and I had the exact same title, served the exact same function, and probably brought home the exact same salary. But, as I spoke with Annette over the phone last Thursday afternoon, it hit me like a freight train: because I am white and she is black, our lives have been completely different.
“My parents still remember Jim Crow laws and they still remember dead bodies swinging from trees,” Annette told me in her sweet but matter-of-fact way. Then, she went into detail about some very personal experiences that still haunt her, today.
The first occurred while shopping at a Belk department store with her mom and baby sister, Gabby. Annette was only 15. “Mom was off shopping for whatever and I was pushing Gabby in her stroller,” Annette said.
That’s when a 50-year old white woman stopped to make a fuss about the baby. “She gushed over Gabby, saying how cute she was – but the entire time I could tell she was judging me.”
Then, the white woman locked eyes with Annette and said, “You. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s always black girls like you who are having these babies. It’s disgusting.”
Annette was speechless. “None of what this lady was saying made any sense and before I realized what was happening, tears were falling out of my eyes.”
I asked Annette if, in that moment 20 years ago, she said anything to the woman. “Nothing,” she mustered up through her tears. “I didn’t know what to say because none of it seemed real.”
Flash forward a few years to 2002, now a woman of nearly 18, Annette endured the most hurtful experience of her life. She was in a serious relationship with Matt, a white man, and she was pregnant with his baby. “His mom called me up and asked me to dinner. So, I went.” Annette said.
They had barely placed their orders when Matt’s mom turned to Annette and said, “I want you to find out how much an abortion costs and I will pay for everything. Matt’s daddy is not letting his son have a nigger baby.”
At this point I could all but taste Annette’s heartache through the phone. But being a resilient woman, she quickly regained her composure and said, “Again I said nothing, Ashley. I just sat there, wondering if anything happening was real.”
Eventually, our conversation turned its focus to what might be necessary to eliminate racism in the U.S.
“Well, black people have to vote,” Annette said. “And I honestly believe this is the closest we’ve ever been to seeing real change. But there are still towns in Alabama that I won’t set foot in after dark.”
Now it was my turn to be shocked, “Wait, what!?!?”
“Yeah. Sundown Towns,” Annette calmly told me. “Like Cullman County, Alabama. Out of a general fear for our lives, it’s one of those places black people just don’t go.”
In this moment, I was the one who had no idea what to say.
“You said you studied Civil Rights during college, right?” Annette asked me. “You must know about Sundown Towns.”
The term seemed familiar, but after spending years studying Constitutional Law, The Civil Rights Movement and The Black Power Movement as a government and politics major at the University of Maryland, I couldn’t remember anything specific about Sundown Towns.
After a few minutes of chit-chat, I thanked Annette for her candor, got off the phone, and got right to work researching Sundown Towns.
I found this book by James W. Loewen, which is a 26-hour listen on audible and a must read for anyone interested in understanding one of the significant catalysts of White Supremacy in America. For those of you who’d rather take my word for it, here’s the deal: From 1890 to 1940, thousands of towns across America used fear to drive away black families, posting public signs – like this 1940 example from Elwood, IN – that read, “Nigger, Don’t let the sun set on you in Elwood.”
Essentially, Sundown Towns are all-white towns that are all-white on purpose. And (and you might want to sit down for this part), they still exist today!
After talking to Annette, I realized that no matter how much you think you already understand about a subject, there’s always more to learn. And, as a result of our conversation, I’ve resolved to amplify a new black voice every chance I get — in a blog that reminds readers that racism is real, racism is wrong, and to begin to reverse its affects we must all raise our voices and speak up!