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Reporters Chronicle Racist History Behind West's 'Sundown Towns'

Downtown Minden
Ken Lund/Flickr

Downtown Minden

In many small towns, a wailing siren was often heard as an ominous warning to people of color.

A new series investigates the legacy of so-called sundown towns. 

Minden and neighboring Gardnerville outside of Carson City were two of those towns, where members of the local Washoe tribe had to leave town by the time the siren sounded nightly at 6.

“There were likely more than 50 sundown towns across the region,” Vincent said. “These were towns that forcibly expelled ethnic minorities, or they had signs posted, warning them to leave before sunset, or in some cases, they even had ordinances on the books like in Minden.”

A new law in Nevada prohibits municipalities from blaring sirens that historically had been used to alert tribal members and other people of color to leave town at a certain hour.

Tribal and city officials agreed to move the siren to 5 p.m. in Minden, which has an ordinance saying the siren is a tribute to first responders.

Boger said the sirens were one more affront to tribal members on top of hostility, forced assimilation, and the loss of traditions and language.

“I want to be very careful and not put any sort of words into tribal members’ mouths,” he said, “but I think that there is a lot of hurt, a lot of trauma associated with the racist policies that were put in place.”

Robyn Vincent, reporter, Mountain West News Bureau; Paul Boger, reporter, KUNR

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.