Some basic facts regarding J.C. Nichols Parkway, the fountain and the history of covenants

Facts regarding J.C. Nichols Parkway, the Fountain, and the history of covenants…and where we stand on the issue

By Kathy Feist, Publisher

As many of you may know, KC Parks & Rec has initiated the process of renaming the J.C. Nichols Fountain in Mill Creek Park and the J.C. Nichols Parkway. Two citizen engagement sessions have been scheduled. The first is this Thursday, June 18th at 6pm at the Bruce R Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. Currently discussion centers around renaming the fountain Dream Fountain and the street Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the  Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, and Visit KC jointly issued the following statement on behalf of their organizations:

 “The business community is committed to making Kansas City a place of opportunity for everyone. We support the process underway to rename the fountain and parkway because we reject policies that were exclusionary, racist and wrong. We feel that our public infrastructure should reflect the values of diversity and inclusion, to which we aspire and are committed.”

Before we throw J.C.  Nichols and his good–or bad–name under the bus, let’s review some facts. 

Plaza property
The Country Club Plaza  property prior to development. Image courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections

The Plaza

J.C. Nichols had a vision in 1907 to transform a marshy area in Brush Creek Valley,  surrounded by pig farms, into a “Spanish marketplace magically transported to Kansas City,” according to Visit KC’s website. People laughed and called it Nichol’s Folly.  It took nine years for Nichols to raise the money ($5 million) and begin his master plan. As Visit KC states in its promo, what was once a laughing stock now attracts 15 million people a year.  

J.C. Nichols Parkway

According to Diane Euston’s story on J.C. Nichols printed last November in The Telegraph,  “On the east side of his newly purchased land was a stream flowing from Westport into Brush Creek called Mill Creek. Nichols wanted the city to pay for a road there….however, the city refused to pay for it.” Nichols took it upon himself to build the road and called it Mill Creek Parkway. In 1952, the name was changed to J.C. Nichols Parkway after his death in 1950. 

The Fountain

According to the KC Parks & Rec website regarding Mill Creek Park, “A memorial to the women of the Old South was placed in the park at the northeast corner of 47th Street and Mill Creek Parkway in 1934. This memorial was moved in 1958 to make way for the J.C. Nichols Fountain. 

The fountain was originally sculpted by Henri Gerber in 1910 for a private mansion in Long Island, NY, that burned down. Over the years, the fountain was vandalized and parts went missing. In 1951 the J.C. Nichols family purchased and repaired the fountain. In 1960, it was installed at its current location in honor of J.C. Nichols. In 2014, the Miller Nichols Charitable Foundation paid for its renovation. 

Now for the bad….

Segregated Neighborhoods and Covenants

J.C. Nichols began developing residential subdivisions in Kansas City marked by large front yards and landscaped neighborhoods. To keep that manicured look, he instituted covenants. Covenants detail restrictions on what you can and cannot do with your property.  Homeowners Associations (HOAs) employ covenants.  Along with covenants on property upkeep was a covenant on who can own a home. These were called racially restrictive covenants and in Kansas City, it divided the east from the west with Troost the dividing line. 

The Laws

According to Racially Restrictive Covenents in the United States: A Call to Action, the first racially restrictive covenants began in California and Massachusetts at the end of the 19th century. Within a decade, they had become embraced by the real estate industry. “By the time the Supreme Court ruled them to be unenforceable in 1948, it is estimated that more than half of all residential properties built in the intervening decades were constrained by racially restrictive covenants.”   The covenants’ surge in popularity may have been due to the Supreme Court’s 1917 decision that municipally mandated racial zoning was unconstitutional. While cities could not mandate racial zoning, developers were given a green light. 

in 1926, the Supreme Court upheld  racially restrictive covenants as a form of private contract, stating in Corrigan v. Buckley

 “The constitutional right of a Negro to acquire, own, and occupy property does not carry with it the constitutional power to compel sale and conveyance to him of any particular private property. The individual citizen, whether he be black or white, may refuse to sell or lease his property to any particular individual or class of individuals. The state alone possesses the power to compel a sale or taking of private property, and that only for the public use. The power of these property owners to exclude one class of citizens implies the power of the other class to exercise the same prerogative over property which they may own. What is denied one class may be denied the other. There is, therefore, no discrimination within the civil rights clauses of the Constitution. Such a covenant is enforceable, not only against a member of the excluded race, but between the parties to the agreement.”

The 1948 Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer made racially restrictive covenants unenforceable. But most HOAs renewed the restrictions automatically every 20 to 25 years unless a majority of the homeowners voted to change them. In 2005, Missouri passed a law allowing the governing bodies of HOAs to delete restrictive covenants from deed restrictions without a vote.

Our Opinion

The racial segregation that J.C. Nichols perpetuated was wrong. We know that now. But few believed that during the first half of the 20th century. Nichols and the rest of the real estate industry were following a law enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court. Kansas Citians should not make him the scapegoat for our great grandparents’ sins. The street he paid for and the fountain his family contributed should rightfully retain his name. His dream of a Spanish marketplace in the middle of a swampland has made Kansas City a world destination. He should be honored.

And so should Martin Luther King. Giving him a street that is only four blocks long outside a fancy shopping area is an insult to his legacy. 

The Parks Board needs to meet with the research committee it formed in November after voters decided The Paseo was not to be named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From what I understand, there have been no committee meetings. What was promised to voters has been bypassed once again by community leaders who wish to take advantage of the Black Lives Matter protests and swiftly get Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name on a Kansas City street sign. 

As of today, the Southern Christian Leaders Conference of Kansas City, which was instrumental in naming The Paseo the MLK Blvd, does not want the parkway named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King for several reasons. We at The Telegraph concur with their reasoning and believe both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and J.C. Nichols should be appropriately honored. We hope you will join us in voicing your concerns. 

To make your voices heard, you can email  KC Parks Board at karmen.houston@kcmo.org.

 

2 thoughts on “Some basic facts regarding J.C. Nichols Parkway, the fountain and the history of covenants

  1. “But few believed that during the first half of the 20th century. ”

    Really?

    FewBlack people? Few Catholics? Few Jewish people?

  2. This is a factual and insightful article. My hopes are still that our Parks Board, Mayor and Jackson County Legislator will consider all the facts and follow a call to leave the fountain name as it is, instead of following all the protesting and damage to the Plaza, that we’ve seen take place.

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