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Karen Valby is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas. She and her husband, who are white, have two adopted daughters, one Ethiopian and one African- American.
ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. I got into town just after sunset. 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.
He just said it. I picked up the book in part because its author, James W. 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. But the stories of how these communities became or stayed mostly white are often unknown, ignored or not fully told. I talked with public officials, historians and longtime residents. Anna is a city of a little more than 4, 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.
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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. Today, Anna is one of the whitest municipalities in southern Illinois — according to the census, Cairo has long been emblematic of a future that Anna fears: the decline of a once-thriving town.
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. But the city is still commercially alive.
Highway Independent businesses run up and down Main Street.
Police department news
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 But he said he gets asked every so often about A-N-N-A by outsiders like me. 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. 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.
Then, in a moment that would lodge itself in regional memory, a year-old white woman from Anna was found dead in November in an alley in Cairo.
Early black settlements by county
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. 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. Hindman died in The night after James was killed, a band of men from Anna headed for a nearby quarry, which employed a of black men.
About 10 workers fled to the woods. 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. John Sales was in his mid 90s when he died in August 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.
Michael Hunter leaned forward in his camouflage-printed office chair. Hartline grew up in Cobden, the town just north of Anna. But these incidents happened. In Marchfour young white men attacked a black 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.
Some sundown towns in the Midwest have begun to confront their legacies.
The Union County Board of Commissioners is all white. He recalled an incident inwhen he was leaving the Farm Fresh milk store after school. At the time, he was dating a girl who was biracial. But there are some black people here, and more, it seems, during the workday. 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. Smith shrugs it off. The whole world. For years, he avoided Anna. He now comes to town to go to Walmart and to get his car washed.
When Easter Smith opened the door, her house smelled like dinner. 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. Highway 51 after dark and called her husband for directions. She described what she saw and he knew she was in Anna. 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.
The high school was good and it had a strong sports program. He felt he and his brothers and sisters would thrive. 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.
Of disease and racial differences
He declined to be interviewed for this story. They were not to lash out or fight.
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.
They laughed about how, sometimes, white people in Anna can be overly nice to them. He kept his composure. Some time later, a few students at Anna-Jonesboro High made an Instagram and anonymously made fun of classmates by posting photos of them along with derogatory captions, Smith said. Some white parents, particularly upset about the post featuring Arieh, spoke to administrators about it, Smith said.
That meant a lot to her. 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. Smith still tears up thinking about it.