The perpetuation of Kansas City’s segregation problem requires a history lesson.
“We didn’t start out racially segregated,” said Dr. Jacob Wagner, Director of UMKC’s Urban Studies Program. “The Troost Wall is really a very recent creation of the 1970s.”
The process of hyper-segregation in Kansas City began with J.C. Nichols, a man whom Kevin Fox Gotham refers to in his book, “Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900 – 2000,” as “one of the first and most prominent developer-builders to promote the use and enforcement of explicitly racially restrictive covenants.”
Nichols was the director of the Kansas City Real Estate Board for seven separate years, spanning a period of three decades. His practices in the ’20s served as an example for other real estate companies to follow throughout the country.
“What the J.C. Nichols Company did was they made it so that everyone who owned a Nichols home also had to belong to the neighborhood association,” said Whitney Terrell, UMKC’s New Letters Writer-in-Residence.
His book, “The King of Kings County,” was motivated by wording he found in his aunt’s deed that mandated white-only home ownership.
His aunt was the wife of J.C. Nichols’ son, Miller Nichols.
“He didn’t invent the racial covenant,” Terrell said, “but he did invent the use of the neighborhood associations [to enforce them], and the idea that a racial covenant would be permanently renewable, that it would never go away, no matter who owns the home.”
The ’30s consisted of steering, blockbusting and redlining. This led to white flight, and it became increasingly difficult for African Americans to obtain loans.
“When folks came back from World War II, there was all this demand for housing and there was no housing, so there starts to be rapid construction again, but as that’s happening, you’ve got that system that was invented in the 1930s—of racially biased lending—that’s firmly in place in the ’40s when people come back,” Wagner said.
“While all of this is happening, you have an emerging Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “So African Americans come back, they have just fought Nazism and racism in Europe, and they come back home and they’re like, ‘Hey, we just died in Europe to save this country and fight racism, and we come home and now we are treated with racism.’”
Although the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 outlawed segregation in public schools, it did little for racial integration in Kansas City.
In fact, it actually did the opposite.
“That was really when Troost became an important dividing line,” Terrell said. “Because what happened was, they drew the school district boundaries at Troost. The effort was to preserve a white-only school in the southwest.”
Almost 20 years later, in 1973, the federal government did not see sufficient integration progress in Kansas City. It ordered the school district to desegregate, but the residual policies of Nichols-era Kansas City made this a difficult process.
The subsequent decade is described in Tanner Colby’s book “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.”
“In the 1980s, the Nichols Company and other developers went on a buying spree, scooping up land that buffered the Plaza and the Country Club District,” Colby wrote. “Meanwhile, the black side of town remained the black side of town. The only time white people had to think about east of Troost was to remind themselves not to go there.”
Joe Louis Mattox, a board member for the Historic Kansas City Foundation and the historian for the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, explained the result.
“Many middle-income black people follow middle-income white folks wherever they go, and they want to be like them,” he said. “I feel that as far as decline of the inner city—and the problems that we’re having with our schools and crime—is mainly due to the fact that middle-income black people have deserted the city.
“At one time, middle-income black people were the majority in the African American community. They had standards that they would not allow some low-income people to break, period. Now we have a situation where the majority of people in the African-American community are low-income people, and it’s their standards that dominate.”
Added Wagner, “The promotion of racially biased lending and housing is a national problem that we’re still living with the effects of today.
So how is this problem resolved? How does Kansas City begin to integrate after a long and stubborn history of racist real estate practices and embedded close-minded ideals? Wagner, Terrell and Mattox have some suggestions.
“Racial covenants robbed several generations of African American families in Kansas City of the best way of creating generational wealth, which is through real estate,” Terrell said. “You have to remind people. Young people need to pick up the story and make sure it becomes part of the official record.”
“My answer is that middle-income black people have got to move back to the city,” Mattox said. “When you have middle-class people in the inner city, when a streetlight’s not working, somebody’s going to call. If the city’s not picking up trash, somebody’s going to call. If you’ve got a prostitute in front of your door, somebody’s going to call. [They] need to come back and put their kids in the schools and say, ‘I demand this of the teachers,’ and ‘I demand this of the student body.’ And I think some low-income people just give up. I don’t know if some low-income and elderly people have the will to just keep fighting for their communities.
“I am very disappointed with blacks at UMKC. I am disappointed in the African-American involvement in our community. They are not outstanding in leadership, and in speaking out.”
Wagner has a somewhat different point of view.
“I think middle-class black folks should move where middle-class black folks want to live,” he said. “I think the African-American middle class has decided to suburbanize because they see that as the path to opportunity, the path to keeping their kids out of the problems of the inner city, which are really problems of concentrated poverty.
“Until we change how we fund and build neighborhoods, until we shift from subsidizing the construction of new neighborhoods to subsidizing and investing in existing neighborhoods, there’s not going to be an incentive to stay. There is a need for political empowerment of urban neighborhood. The cities in the nation have subsidized suburban development for more than fifty years. It’s time to flip that.”
During President Obama’s administration, there have been policy changes limiting the communities that can be developed from scratch, drawing attention to the importance of focusing on improving existing neighborhoods, from those such as the Chamber of Commerce’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative.
“But that’s just the beginning,” Wagner said. “It’s not the end.”
He explained that there are several questions that need to be asked following this program.
Will the commitments to reinvest in existing neighborhoods and their businesses remain over time? Will public and private spending change? Are lending patterns changing? Are the people who benefit changing? When development takes place, who gets the contracts? Are they local, minority-owned businesses? Is the capital staying in the community to increase access to opportunities?
It may be too soon to ask some of these questions, but Maddox maintains that in the meantime, UMKC students can make a difference.
“One of the things we’re going to have to have,” he said, “is more college graduates saying that the inner city is a good place to live; ‘I’m going to take a stand, and I’m going to be here to improve it.’”