Elizabethtown Borough sign

Dear Dr. Scribblersun:

Recently I was challenged to learn why my community isn’t more racially diverse. I remember being vaguely aware that Elizabethtown had sundown laws, and I know they’re no longer on the books. When and why were they instituted? When and how were they rescinded? Did other communities in the county have these laws?

Joan Huston

Elizabethtown

Dear Joan:

Elizabethtown’s borough manager, Rebecca Denlinger, says she knows nothing about a sundown ordinance that prohibited Black people from living in Elizabethtown. If such a law did exist, she admits, it would take considerable digging to find it.

But Elizabethtown was lily white from the 1930s, at the latest, until at least the 1950s, according to several area residents.

“I never heard anybody say there was an ordinance passed to that effect,” says Gordon Berrier, who has lived in the borough most of his 89 years. “But that is what occurred. People who worked in some of the houses couldn’t stay overnight.”

Berrier graduated from Elizabethtown High School in 1950. There were no Black people in the school system or, as far as he knows, in the town at that time.

In 1948, his sophomore year, he says, “my civic teacher said that in the 1930s, when the jail was in the old firehouse, an older Black man wanted to stay in the jail overnight. They told him, ‘Mount Joy is five miles down the road.’ ”

Mount Joy was not a sundown town, but Elizabethtown certainly was, according to the Rev. Jerry Berrier, Gordon Berrier’s younger cousin. He has lived in Mount Joy most of his 86 years.

He recalls, “I was told by more than one person when I was young that in Elizabethtown, if you hired a Black person, that person was required to leave town before the sun went down. You find anybody in his 80s and he would say that.”

One of Jerry Berrier’s best friends growing up was the only Black student in the Mount Joy school system. The late Gerald Wilson was a star of the championship Mount Joy High School basketball team in the early 1950s. Berrier and Wilson graduated together in 1952.

Gerald Wilson’s son, also Gerald Wilson, of Manheim Township, says his father told him that every time he played basketball in Elizabethtown, the police escorted him onto and off the court and “when he ran down the court the cheerleaders stuck their feet out and tried to trip him.”

So was Elizabethtown a sundown town? “I always heard it was,” Wilson says.

The sociologist James W. Loewen wrote the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.” His website updates the book. Loewen says Elizabethtown “surely” was a sundown town. He quotes two anonymous people who provide persuasive details.

If you Google “Sundown Towns” and then search the database for Pennsylvania, you will find that Loewen names four suspected one-time sundown towns in Lancaster County: Elizabethtown, Manheim, New Holland and Conestoga.

The list may be longer. Loewen says there were once thousands of sundown towns in the United States, but finding actual sundown ordinances is difficult.

And Loewen does not include suburban developments that had (and still have, unless individual homeowners have removed them) deed restrictions prohibiting selling houses to people of color. School Lane Hills, a development in Lancaster Township, was segregated from its beginning in 1926. (See Scribbler column, May 10, 2011.)

As a segregated place, Elizabethtown was hardly alone. But, apparently, it was very well known, at least in Mount Joy.

Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP | LancasterOnline staff, writes “The Scribbler” column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at scribblerlnp@gmail.com.

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