Was Prineville ever a Sundown Town?
Like many rural towns, Prineville has its share of urban legends that have been passed down from word of mouth, speculation from within from residents or from outside sources.
One such speculation that has recently surfaced is that Prineville has been or is a "Sundown Town."
Sundown Towns are also sometimes referred to as sunset towns or gray towns. They were all-white municipalities or neighborhoods in the United States that practiced a form of segregation by excluding non-whites — which could include many ethnic groups including Latinos, Asians or African Americans. The exclusion practice included a combination of discriminatory local laws, including intimidation or violence, until 1965.
According to the website, The History of Social Justice in America, "not all Sundown Towns were the same; some Sundown Laws were barely enforced due to a low population of non-white residents, while others were enforced with threats and violence."
Historian and author James Loewen researched Sundown Towns extensively to write a book and shed light on the subject and found that Oregon had 24 towns that were either suspected or confirmed Sundown Towns, based on oral histories and archival research. Prineville was not included in that 24, for that matter, no Central Oregon towns were.
The search to find answers to the speculation of Prineville's supposed history of a Sundown Law above and beyond this information led to Prineville's local historian, the Crook County Clerk's office and the City of Prineville City Attorney.
Local Museum Historian for A.R. Bowman Museum Steve Lent has been researching the history for Prineville on the subject of whether Prineville has ever had any documentation to lend any credence to the speculation of it being a Sundown Town or having a Sundown Law.
"I have done some research on that because somebody had asked that before," said Lent. "I cannot find anything in the city ordinances or city meetings or anything that ever said there was a law passed for that in Prineville."
Lent has access to the archives of the city council meetings and minutes, as well as city ordinances. These are available to the public as well. The documents are exclusively in hard-bound books with the original writings until 1964 — which are then transferred after that date to digital format in addition to the original documents. Lent emphasized that to find anything about Prineville ordinances or law before the 1964 date would require someone to access it either at the museum or through the city of Prineville records at City Hall.
"I would like to see where they specifically said they found it," he emphasized of the speculation that someone had seen such a law. "We have the historic city council ordinances and things here, and nobody has ever come in to look at them."
Crook County Clerk Cheryl Seely responded that any online searches did not bring up anything on Sundown Laws for Prineville. She had also found records of presumptive counties in Oregon that had once had such a law, but Prineville or Crook County was not among them. To investigate each ordinance from the 1890s for the county would be extremely involved.
"It would be a lengthy process," she said of the county documents they have in their archives. She indicated that what makes it difficult to look through archives for this kind of information, is that it can be difficult to know what key words to look for in the index. Each clerk throughout time has used their own system to index these documents.
"Sometimes the only way to find it is to flip page by page through those books, and they are huge. They are 400-600 pages per book."
City of Prineville Attorney Jered Reid reviewed every city ordinance from 1893 forward. He also enjoys looking into history, and he found the records from 1964 back by going through the records the old-fashioned way. He added that records from 1964 forward are available online.
"They have this old book that is an ordinance reference book. It was, frankly, easier to navigate than the internet," he noted of the records he accessed at Prineville City Hall.
Reid said that he wanted to be able to conclusively tell people that either it was repealed on a certain date or that Crook County never had such a law.
"I can confidently tell you there was never any law that was directly discriminated against people of color, nor was there ever any sort of lynching law or discrimination type law, Jim Crow — however you phrase that — that directly targeted people of color, people of a certain religion or creed," he concluded.
Jim Crow laws were either a state or local law that enforced racial segregation, and were mostly found in the Southern United States. These were enforced until 1965.
A.R. Bowman Museum
Address: 246 N. Main St., Prineville, OR 97754
Local Museum Historian: Steve Lent
Crook County Clerk's Office
Address: 300 N.E. Third St., Prineville, OR 97754
Crook County Clerk: Cheryl Seely
City of Prineville
Address: 387 N.E. 3rd St., Prineville, OR 97754
City of Prineville Attorney: Jered Reid
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