Its status as a Sundown Town is almost legendary. The machinations of the population, the city government, and the social conditions mean Darien was allowed to stay all white for decades, and proudly so. That began to change in the late 1940s when Laura Hobson wrote a novel called Gentleman’s Agreement that used Darien’s anti-Semitic, Sundown status as its backdrop. In the book, a newspaper reporter investigates prejudice by changing his last name from “Green” to “Greenberg”. As a “white” man passing as a Jew, he reported on the discrimination practices in Darien. The novel was made into a classic film of the same name starring Gregory Peck in the Green role; Turkish native Elia Kazan directed the movie and it won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
One of Darien’s prized methods of exclusion (and one employed by many Sundown Towns) was exposed in the book and movie. It is called “realty steerage”. It is a practice in which realtors unofficially keep out “undesirables” by not showing them properties, or by purposefully overstating sale price, anything to subvert a potential home sale to an African-American or to a Jewish person.
The town’s main streets are erratically labeled with street signs, and many cross streets have no signs, either. This discourages visitors. Also, many of the public thoroughfares carry “Private” signs on them. The public beach is accessed via a checkpoint; only residents of Darien can use it. Everything in the town is set up to keep the town white and affluent – its teachers, domestics, police, and other civil servants cannot afford to live there. Most commute from great distances. Thus, the city is a protected enclave of white faces after dark.
The Ku Klux Klan, which preached a doctrine of Protestant control of America and suppression of blacks, Jews and Catholics, had a following in Connecticut and Darien in the 1920s. The A Darien resident, Harry Lutterman, was Grand Dragon in the state. The Connecticut Klan’s popularity peaked in 1925 when it had a statewide membership of 15,000.
The nearby Stamford Republican Party used its Lincoln Republican Club as a front for all Klan activities in the area. During the 1924 election, one of the largest Klan meetings in the state took place in Stamford and was organized by Lutterman. The Stamford Advocate published an advertisement signed by local Democrats (who relied on the Catholic vote) protesting the meeting. The Klan published an advertisement in response, noting the “un-American” names of some of those who signed the Democrats’ statement.
By 1926, the Klan leadership in the state was divided, and it lost strength, although it continued to maintain small, local branches for years afterward in Darien, as well as in Bridgeport, Stamford,Greenwich and Norwalk
In an insincere and hypocritical public service program Darien tried to change its reputation by reaching out to other communities’ “underprivileged”. A program called “A Better Chance” (ABC) was started to allow inner-city children (who must be qualified scholars) to come live in Darien and attend one of its exclusive prep schools for free. This program has not been as successful as Darien would wish the public to believe – the total number of “inner school” children present in the program were few. Also, they were housed in a separate facility for the duration of their stay. They were not encouraged to stay in Darien once their participation in the program was over. Finally, all the students were female (reinforcing the Sundown Town hatred and mistrust of black males).
Darien will claim today it is free of its Sundown past, but so does Vidor, Texas (a town which Darien’s well-heeled denizens would look down upon and not recognize themselves in).