California towns grapple with cities’ racist history as the sun sets


In California and across the country, there is a history of sunset towns, which were places where blacks and minorities were excluded by informal and formal policies.

Tara Peterson, Executive Director of YWCA Glendale and Pasadena, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending racism and empowering women, explains Glendale’s history as a city at sunset.

“One indicator of a sunset city is to look at the demographics, so any time you have a city that has less than 2% African Americans [such as Glendale], this could be an indicator that there may have been a history of city laws at sunset. A sunset city law states that if you are a person of color or a black person, after 6 p.m. you cannot be in this community, and so I have heard from members of the community, stories of them remembering watching people who work here in Glendale, running to the bus stop and as a child asking their mother, “Why is that woman running?” And they were like ‘she has to be gone by 6 p.m.’,” Peterson explained.

The practice of ‘sunset towns’ dates back to the 19th century and is named after signs telling black people that they should leave at ‘sunset’.

The Glendale Central Library has also done extensive research on the subject.

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“A Sunset City is a city or town that is all white on purpose, uses informal or formal means to keep African Americans or other people of color out of town. We went through records and documents and we couldn’t find any laws in the books, but we found evidence that the city was actually a sunset city and it was not hospitable to African Americans,” said Gary Shaffer, Director of the City of Glendale Arts and Culture Library.

Laws were often enforced through police intimidation tactics or sometimes violence.

For decades, Glendale was a hub for the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK held rallies in Glendale even into the 1980s.

“We found examples of KKK rallies and gatherings in Glendale. We found information about local groups working to get petitions or pledges signed that they will not sell to a person of color,” Shaffer said.

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Sunset town practices existed in Glendale well into the 1990s, according to Peterson.

“We didn’t have Jim Crow [laws] here in California, but we had sunset city laws,” Peterson said.

Peterson, along with other community leaders, created the “Coalition for an Anti-Racist Glendaleand the coalition drafted a historic sunset city resolution. The resolution was passed by Glendale City Council in 2020.

“We really need to talk about the issues of race in our community. We need to talk about the issues that people of color are going through. We need to first acknowledge our history and we need to apologize and atone and that’s the goal of the city of sunset resolution. [resolution] becomes a tool to advocate for other changes. As the City of Glendale reviews its housing policies and practices, as it reviews its economic and business policies and practices, we are able to say hello, remember you passed a sunset city resolution and said you were committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, where is that in that policy?” Peterson said.

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Glendale became the first city in California to pass a resolution and the third in the nation. Following Glendale’s move, the cities of Burbank and South Pasadena, also with histories of sunset city laws, passed similar measures. South Pasadena became the most recent city to do so in 2022.

“This [Glendale sundown town resolution] inspired other communities to follow suit and it really feels good to be part of a city that made the right decision and now we have that resolution in place,” Peterson said.

The Glendale Central Library has also documented Glendale’s racist history for the public through an online exhibit titled “Judgement, racism and resistance in Glendale.

Librarians and library archivists have recovered library materials detailing Glendale’s past.

“Libraries don’t forget. We keep information and I think what the team did that was really unique was they took what could be dry information and made it accessible to people” , Shaffer said.

Ara Oshagan, his wife, Anahid Oshagan, and Shannon Currie Holmes, all served as curators for the exhibit.

“The Reckoning was a unique type of exhibition that we did. Reckoning was very special to us because it was very local. It was really about our own story here in Glendale. People who have been there know something about Glendale’s racist past. They know certain things happened in different places in the city, but no one really knew the details or looked into it. The exhibit really created this space for that we can dive into it,” Ara Oshagan said.

Oshagan said the exhibit changed Glendale for him, a town he had called home for decades.

“Glendale has completely transformed for me because now I know that in the 1920s there was a big KKK gathering where Glendale’s Community College is, so now when I walk past it’s not just a community college, there’s this past associated with it.” he said.

Oshagan said conservatives want to connect the past with the present.

“That past ties into today, which shows that some of those issues are unresolved. There are issues that we still have to try to be better as a community to solve. I think we still have to learn the history that was here,” he said.

Oshagan believes art can help educate people and elicit an emotional response.

“If there’s an emotional connection, there’s a psychological connection, so I think people are more likely to be moved and affected to change their minds. I think when you’re emotionally moved or psychologically you should push the perspective, and I think art has the power to do that, and if you change your perspective, then there’s hope for change,” he said.

The library uses its “ReflectSpace” gallery to create meaningful exhibits. The current exhibit at the library focuses on the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles. The exhibits have also been moved to an online format during the pandemic.

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