Harsh story well told

Sundown Town: The Negroes didn’t know they would not be welcome in Illinois

Sundown Town is an easy, yet difficult, read. It’s a page-turner with an unbelievable, yet believable, story. Taking the reader from Alabama to Illinois right before the turn of the century, the authors give us everything a well-rounded story needs to be good. Even an ending.

Sundown Town utilizes the coal mine wars of the late 1890s as the focal point for this 358-page novel. From beginning to end, the authors weave a tale that envelopes total and unapologetic hate, life-saving and life-taking, tender smiles and violent rape, laughter and tears, unfulfilled hopes and shattered dreams. There is also a great deal of courage in the face of fear, ambush and inhumanity.

Kevin Corly is from Shelbyville and has authored three books: Sixteen Tons, Throw out the Water and now Sundown Town. A history aficionado, Kevin is a retired educator who uses his love of writing to tell the stories he enjoyed sharing with his students. Douglas E. King of Springfield is a native of St. Louis and this is his first book. A retired state of Illinois employee, Douglas has been active with the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum, Frontiers International and the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism. He lives with Pamela, his wife of 47 years.

What makes Sundown Town easy to read is its well written age-old story of lies, deception and power. What makes it difficult are the vivid descriptions of the extreme hatred, gunfights, murders, massacres and cruel treatment of other human beings. In addition, there are approximately 30 main characters to keep track of. What makes this easier is the fact that the authors chose to prepare the reader by listing and describing the major characters prior to beginning the story, instead of writing each of the characters’ entire back-story within the story
Sundown towns are well known in Illinois. A sundown town is a town which does not allow blacks on the street or in the town after dark, when the sun goes down. This account of historical fiction has so many actual names, places and events, it reads like an episode of “Dragnet.” This reads like a true story with the names being changed as not to “out” the guilty.

Sundown Town opens in Birmingham, Alabama, in August of 1898. Howard Smithson is a white coal mine owner from Illinois advertising a need for 175 good “colored” miners. The story was that the war in Cuba had drained the workforce. So, they offered free train tickets, jobs with decent wages and a place to live in Pana, Illinois. To sweeten the deal, wives (and children) were also welcomed and promised jobs as rock pickers as long as their men were in good standing. The “God-forsaken” life for Negroes in Alabama made the hope of a better life in the North worth the risk of taking a train over 500 miles to a place no one had ever heard of.
Big Henry Stevens was one of those colored men willing to take that risk to leave Birmingham. He was 13 pounds at birth, an only child and big enough to work in the mines by the time he was eight. His ma died in childbirth and his pa in a rock fall, making Big Henry an orphan at the age of 11. A grown man now, Henry could go toe to toe with anyone when it came to working, fighting, drinking, shooting, navigating difficult situations and even quoting scripture.

Little did the Negroes know that once they reached Pana -- if they reached Pana -- they wouldn’t be welcomed. They would be known as “scabs.” They would be hated, their lives constantly threatened. Their pay consisted of only credits at the company store and much less than was promised. Their wives’ and children’s train tickets were not free.

As the weeks go by, the characters come to life. We quickly learn more about the towns, unions and people of Pana, Springfield, Virden and Carterville and what they think about scabs, especially, Negro scabs. Being physically large and mentally fearless, Big Henry was the obvious leader of the black men. Myrtle Wallace, Garfield’s wife, led the black women. She cooked, cleaned, sewed, took care of her four boys (and others) and spoke up and stood her ground with anyone (black or white). Illinois Governor Tanner supported the unions, but also black citizens’ rights. Jeb Turner is the Pana deputy who protects the Negro strikebreakers.
As not to give away the end of the story, it should simply be noted that there is the smell of redemption in the air as the epilogue opens. The character who has seen it all from beginning to end prepares to tell their truth for history’s record.

This is a wonderfully written harsh story, full of real-life people and history.  

Pamela Woodson, Th.D., of Springifeld, is a speaker, writer, educator and the owner of Pamela Speaks Training & Consulting. She is the author of the Seasons of Mia & Mya series and runs Mia and Mya’s World.

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