Sundown Town – A true story of racism in 1980’s Texas

Jack walked into the dingy market and gas station. He didn’t need gas but it was August in Texas, it was hot and he was thirsty. 

He nodded as he walked past the employee behind the counter. He was a robust younger fellow who was speaking with an equally robust man who stood on the opposite side of the counter. The two, no doubt friends, nodded at Jack as he walked past. 

“Cold sodas?” Jack asked.

“In the back, the cooler on the right.” Came the response from behind the counter. 

The two men returned to their conversation as Jack walked to the back of the store. He noticed an older Black woman who was looking at the limited selection of bread. She glanced at Jack and nodded.

“Ma’am,” Jack said as he opened the cooler door and stood there enjoying the blast of cold air that wafted from inside. He closed his eyes a moment and felt the nice cool air blow across his sweaty face. It felt good to be in from the heat for a few minutes. 

His attention was diverted to the two men up front. They seemed to engage in a purposefully mean and derogatory conversation aimed at the Black woman Jack had said hello to. 

“Some nigger come in here last week tryin’ to tell me my business an’ I ran his black ass on down the road.” The other man laughed at the employee’s comment. 

Horrified, Jack turned and looked at the Black woman and she noticed his reaction. She simply shook her head as if to say, “that’s just how it still is around here.”

Jack put the bottle of soda back into the cooler and headed for the door. 

“Was there something I can help you with buddy?” The employee asked Jack. 

“No there is not.” Jack was disgusted that there were still ignorant people who actually thought they were better than another person; especially those who thought so because of skin color. 

Jack pushed the door to the market open, a chime rang somewhere in the back office area of the store. Just leave, Jack thought to himself. He knew that was the prudent thing to do, however he seemed unable to do so.

He stepped back into the store, turned around and walked up to the two men at the counter. 

“What can I do for ya?” The one behind the counter asked. 

“I think you owe the nice lady in the back of the store an apology.”

The employee looked at Jack dumbfounded. “What the hell are you talkin’ about mister?”

“I’m talking about the Black woman the two of you are intentionally trying to offend.”

The employee’s friend chimed in, “looks like this boy’s a nigger lover Billy.”

“Is that right,” Billy taunted Jack. “You some sorta race traitor nigger lover?”

“Why don’t you go f——” before Jack could finish his comment, the other man grabbed him by his shirt collar and with a crushing blow punched Jack in the face which sent him reeling back on his heels and into a metal newspaper stand. He lost his balance and fell onto his butt. He shook his head trying to regain his composure. The two men laughed as Jack got to his feet. 

He walked back to within arms reach of the two men and shook his head as he touched his forehead. 

“Listen, I apologize fellas.”

The two men laughed again. “You damn right you do you son of a bitch!” Said the man who punched Jack. 

Before the man could gloat any further Jack tightened his right fist, brought it to his chest and with every ounce of strength he thrust straight out aiming his clenched fist just below the man’s chin. It caught him right at his Adam’s apple slightly hyperextending his trachea. The man instantly grabbed at his throat gasping for air as he fell to the ground. He wasn’t getting back up anytime soon.

“Holy shit!” The employee yelled. He turned to come from behind the counter to help his friend. Jack grabbed him by his overall suspenders before he could move far and yanked him forward over the counter. In one sweeping motion he reached behind his head and thrust his face into the counter breaking his nose. He fell back onto the floor behind the register. 

Jack leaned over the counter and admonished the bigoted fool. “Now wouldn’t it have just been easier to fucking apologize?”

The man looked up at Jack holding his bleeding nose. “Fuck! I’m sorry man!”

The offended woman was making a beeline for the door, she wanted no part of this altercation. 

“Not to me asshole!” Jack said pointing to the woman. 

She walked hurriedly past them, “Mmm mmm, lord have mercy!” She exited the store, went to the corner of the building to the payphone and called the police. She didn’t leave but she stayed outside until the police arrived. She quickly explained the situation to the responding officer who then entered the store. 

Jack was standing at the counter thumbing through the local newspaper as the officer approached him. He quickly surveyed the banged up men, both of whom were sitting on the floor but not critically injured, unless you counted their bigoted pride. 

“You the fella responsible for this mess?” The officer asked Jack. 

Jack folded the paper and returned it to the rack which held newspapers from the region. 

“Yeah, I guess I am,” Jack replied. 

The employee got up from the floor and leaned on the counter. “I want this fucker arrested!”

“Shut the hell up Billy!” The officer said pointing into Billy’s face. “I got enough right now to take the two of you dumb asses to jail, so don’t try me boy!”

“You,” the officer said turning to Jack. “What’s your name?”

Jack took a sip from a Pepsi Cola he had retrieved while he waited for the police to arrive. 

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and let out a bit of a burp. “Hemingway…Jack Hemingway.”

“Well Mr. Hemingway why don’t you step outside for a minute while I sort this cluster fuck out.”

Jack took the Pepsi and turned to Billy. “Thanks for the soda tough guy.”

“Hey!” Billy yelled after Jack. “He didn’t pay for that!”

The officer opened the door for Jack and looked back at the bleeding idiots. The man Jack had punched in the throat managed to pull himself to his feet, still unable to speak above a raspy whisper. 

“I suggest you take a dollar from your pocket and buy the damn soda yourself before I turn this here fella loose on you two morons!”

Jack held the cold soda against his ringing head. The punch caught him just above his left eye. A large red knot had formed above the eyebrow. 

The woman who called the police came over to Jack. “Sir, you doing okay?” 

Jack eyed her as he rolled the bottle lightly over his swollen forehead. “I guess I’ll live.”

She put her arm across his shoulder, “Whatcha doing mixing it up with those fools for?” She wasn’t really scolding him but she felt bad he had taken a licking on her behalf. “Honey, you definitely not from around these parts.”

They walked over to the police cruiser as the officer finished talking over the radio with the police station. 

“Mr. Hemingway,” the officer said calling Jack over. “Is that your vehicle?” The officer motioned towards Jack’s car. 

“Yeah.”

“You feel like you can drive?” 

“I’m fine.”

“Alright,” the officer said, “then I’m going suggest you mosey on your way and I’ll take care of the rest of this.”

Jack turned to the woman. “Can I give you a ride somewhere ma’am?”

“Honey I think it would be best if you just got somewhere else. Right now those two peckerwoods are probably calling some friends to go looking for you. Just get on to where you need to be sweetie.”

“Don’t worry about Miss Doris…I’ll get her where she’s going Mr. Hemingway.”

Jack turned to her, “I’m sorry Miss Doris.” He fought back the emotions building inside. She could tell he was apologizing for the prejudice of those of his race. 

“For what? This wasn’t your fault. You just don’t know how it can be around here. This town ain’t too far removed from being a sundown town.”

“Sundown town? What’s that?” Jack asked. 

Miss Doris looked at the officer. He answered for her. “Well ya see Mr. Hemingway it wasn’t too many years back it was considered what ya might say illegal for colored folk to be seen on the streets after sundown.” He sort of looked down, perhaps a bit ashamed. “If they got caught out after sundown, they could be arrested, or even worse.”

Miss Doris folded her arms. “Mmm hmm.”

Jack looked at them both, “that’s…I can’t believe human beings can treat each other like that,” he shook his head. 

Miss Doris stretched open her arms and gave Jack a hug. “Mmm hmmm, Mr. Hemingway I can tell you’re a good man. You go on you way now and the lord he’s gonna take good care of you.”

“Alright, let’s get you moving Mr. Hemingway,” the officer motioned Jack towards his car. 

Jack stuck out his hand, the officer shook it and nodded. Jack turned towards his car, he took a swig of the Pepsi. 

“Say,” the officer called after Jack. “Are you Hemingway…the writer fella?”

Jack stopped and turned towards the officer and Miss Doris. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he said as a faint smile traced across his lips. He continued to his car. 

“Come on Miss Doris,” the officer said, “I’ll take you by the Piggly Wiggly and you can get what ya need there.”

Doris walked around to the passenger side of the patrol car. “Mmm I met myself Mister Hemingway – the writer…You be sure and put this in one of your stories now!” She called out after Jack.

“I just might do that,” he said and gave her a wave as she got into the police car. 

“Heck, he ain’t gonna mention this in no story of his,” the officer protested. 

Jack sat down in the driver seat and sighed. His head still throbbed as he backed out and pulled onto the road and headed west. California was still a few days away and he couldn’t get out of Texas fast enough.

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