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Amid heightened racial tensions, ‘Looking for America’ series examines ‘sundown towns’

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Many white Americans have likely never heard of “sundown towns,” where Black people were forbidden to go after dark. So Tim Sullivan, Maye-E Wong and Noreen Nasir visited one such Midwest town on the second stop in AP’s “Looking for America” series, to see how it is faring in a year marked by racial protests across the nation. Their multiformat package is in fact an examination of the larger issue of systemic racism that is obvious to some people but invisible to others.

The team ended up in Vienna,Illinois,thanks to a confluence of factors. Minneapolis-based enterprise reporter Sullivan found the town’s story referenced in a book,then dug into newspaper reports from the 1950s, when racial violence erupted and the town’s Black community was driven out. A scholar put him in contact with a local high school teacher and sometime historian who knew more of the history.

While there is no longer a rule against Black people in Vienna after dark,the habit persists for many out of fear and tradition. Of some 1,434 people in Vienna,only 16 were Black or biracial in the 2010 census. The journalists’ earliest hurdle was meeting people of color in the community.

During an initial visit,the team could find no one,but Chicago video journalist Nasir eventually found a source. Sullivan reached out and learned there had been a recent racial incident at the high school and a Black Lives Matter-type protest was planned. Through the organizers,he found Black residents and white relatives of biracial kids,but they would speak only off the record because they feared community reaction. To fully tell the story, the team needed Black or biracial people who would speak about their life in the small southern Illinois town.

So Nasir drove down from Chicago for the protest in the hope that people demonstrating would speak openly. And they did, as Nasir connected with both demonstrators and others who agreed to be interviewed on camera.

That opened the door to telling the deeper story. But the team faced another challenge: how to capture the violence and fear Black people experienced if they were in a sundown town after dark?

As part of this visually rich project,Nasir and New York enterprise photographer Wong looked to the sky. Wong put together a slow-motion time-lapse video as the sun set one evening along a road in nearby Anna,Illinois,a well-known sundown town. She also recorded the moon rising along a dark road,capturing the story’s ominous theme. The work of conveying that theme fell to multimedia journalist Samantha Shotzbarger, who brought all the package’s elements together in a striking presentation.

The story was used widely across the U.S. and garnered more than 40,000 page views on AP social media channels.

For a probing but nuanced package that speaks to a lingering thread of systemic racism,the all-formats team of Sullivan, Nasir and Wong earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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