Dissecting the Troost Divide and racial segregation in Kansas City
By Diane Euston with contributing historian Tim Reidy
Cover Photo from Missouri Valley Special Collections/Kansas City Public Library
A long overdue conversation about systemic racism has ignited across the nation, perpetuated from the pain of witnessing on camera the killing of George Floyd. What followed were protests and genuine cries for change in our city.
Inequality etched our landscape after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Systems put into place nationwide trickled into Kansas City, forever transforming the community into segregation. Into the 1890s, the city wasn’t as racially divided as many would assume. There were several factors that changed this, and one of note recently due to the call to rename J.C. Nichols Parkway was his use of racial covenants in the growing suburbs.
J.C. Nichols and other real estate developers such as Fletcher Cowherd and the Kroh Brothers of Leawood used covenants as a tool to create a white paradise outside the confines of the urban core. These racial restrictions weren’t solely the idea of one man in one city but were common practices supported by the federal government across the nation. Residential segregation, according to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, is “an unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.”
What drove segregation in Kansas City included blockbusting, racial covenants, real estate practices (including the federal government’s lending programs that refused to insure mortgages in African American neighborhoods), and the Kansas City Public Schools.
It was the Kansas City School Board that created what we know as the “Troost Wall” or “Troost Divide” in our city. For the purpose of this piece, I will focus on the lesser-discussed failure of the School Board to desegregate the schools- a failure that has left our city with lasting scars still yet to fully heal.
The Earliest African American Settlements and Schools
After the Civil War, the African American population in Kansas City was scattered between many neighborhoods. Hell’s Half Acre, a neighborhood in the West Bottoms, was one area chosen for black settlement due to its location near the railroads and stockyards. The neighborhood consisted of people from many different ethnic backgrounds.
Church Hill, in between 8th and 12th Sts. between Holmes and Troost was originally “the core of Kansas City’s Black community.” Located inside this area was a subdivision called Perry Place where Kersey Coates (1823-1887) only sold to African Americans until 1870. Coates was a Quaker from Pennsylvania who developed Union Hill and founded the Board of Trade. The Coates House Hotel (built in 1886) at 10th and Broadway still bears his name. His allocation of land for African Americans allowed for the creation of several churches and the area’s first black school.
In 1867, the first school for African Americans on the Missouri side opened. It was called Lincoln School, and it was originally located inside a church in the heart of the city at 10th and McGee. Segregated schools were actually required in the Missouri constitution- it was a criminal offense to have integrated schools. For almost 40 years, Lincoln School was the only place for people of color to get an education.
The railroads and stockyards had people from all over flocking to Kansas City for work. At the same time, thousands of African Americans fled the South due to mounting racial tensions. Many chose to settle in Wyandotte Co. in the Quindaro neighborhood. In Kansas City, Mo., the black population by 1885 had quadrupled.
Millionaire’s Row on Troost Ave.
When Kansas City was at its peak of growth in the 1880s, city planners and leaders thought residential development was moving to the east. This can be seen by looking at the early Parks and Boulevard maps. The grandest of all the boulevards, The Paseo, began construction in 1893 and hosted some of the most beautiful residences of the day.
Even before The Paseo was constructed, another neighborhood had been coined one of the richest in the city and featured some of the most beautiful mansions of its time- -and they fell right on Troost Ave. between 24th St. and Linwood Blvd.
In 1834, Tennessee-born Rev. James Porter (1786-1851), the first Methodist preacher in Kansas City, patented 365 acres at what would become Troost Ave. and employed at least 40 slaves on his plantation. By 1886, the Porter family began to sell off lots. Porter’s own granddaughter tore down the original plantation house and built a mansion on what would be coined “Millionaire’s Row.” What once was the Porter Plantation now encompasses many of Kansas City neighborhoods including Longfellow Heights, Mount Hope, and Beacon Hill.
Troost Ave. had been named for Kansas City’s first doctor, Benoist Troost (1786-1859), and when the streetcar made it to Troost Ave. in 1889, residents could see tremendous value for selling off their large lots. Up until 1912, Troost was considered the place to be seen until the commercial real estate market overwhelmed the street. Within 20 years, Troost Ave. became a center of commercial development and the mansions then disappeared.
What was once a plantation turned into a street of commercial distinction. Within a few decades, that street would become the dividing line of Kansas City.
Black Communities in Kansas City
The Church Hill neighborhood near Quality Hill became limited in housing options due to commercial expansion, thus the residents in this area sought different housing outside of it. In 1900, African Americans were distributed throughout the city, but three main neighborhoods were settled more heavily. Belvidere centered around land north of Independence Ave. on the east and west side of Troost. Hick’s Hollow was just east of Belvidere and west of Prospect, and the Bowery was just east of Troost and west of Prospect.
The population boom in the 1880s caused overdevelopment of inexpensive, affordable housing on Kansas City’s east side. The financial crisis of 1890 created even more housing inventory. James Shortridge, author of Kansas City and How it Grew, stated, “With exclusionary laws still in the future, location [of blacks] remained primarily a matter of affordability.” This along with good access to public transportation may have been the driving force behind the east side’s growing black population.
Mirroring the Quality Hill neighborhood on the west side of town, well-to-do African Americans began to move from the West Bottoms and into an area just east of The Paseo near 24th St. This neighborhood quickly became known as “Negro Quality Hill.”
Lincoln School opened the area’s first black high school at 19th and Tracy in 1890, and its creation likely fueled even more settlement on the east side. Slowly but surely, Black churches started to relocate to this area as well. By the 1920s, the area also boasted the scene of late-night entertainment in the 18th and Vine neighborhood, a place still iconic for its culture and music traditions.
Early Civil Rights activist W.E.B. DuBois strongly believed in the importance of education and stated, “Education and work are the levers to uplift a people.” The growing African American population in Kansas City was stimulated by this desire to educate the next generation. In 1900, the black population was evenly distributed throughout Jackson, Cass and Platte Counties, but if you wanted to have access to education, you had to travel to Kansas City. This created pressure for parents to either move to the area or make their children travel long distances to school.
According to Kevin Fox Gotham, professor of sociology at Tulane University and author of Race, Real Estate and Uneven Development, between World War I and 1954, “Only six of 61 African American settlements in Jackson, Clay, and Platte Counties provided elementary schools for African American children.” In fact, until 1954, Lincoln was the only African American secondary school in all three counties.
Because of the systems in place, families who decided to relocate to Kansas City lived in racially segregated places where children went to racially segregated schools.
The Shift to the Suburbs
As the city grew in size and the motor car created mobility, the suburbs became desirable and catered to the notion of “white flight.” The creation of Attucks School at 19th and Woodland in 1907 gave even more educational opportunities to the Black community in the area.
Racial covenants in new neighborhoods prohibited Blacks from living within them. In other well-established white neighborhoods in the city that bordered on areas with an African American population, HOA’s conveniently added covenants to restrict blacks from moving into their space.
As the divide became more pronounced along Troost Ave., whites living east of the division moved out of the area and further segregated the school system and neighborhoods. Real estate “blockbusters” such as Bob Wood profited from white flight by buying a home and selling it to minorities. As part of a chain reaction, whites in the neighborhood would sell their homes to people like Bob Wood below market value “on the implied threat of future devaluation during minority integration of previously segregated neighborhoods.”
Within a short period of time, African Americans were pigeonholed to the east side of Kansas City. James Shortridge explained, “Restrictive covenants in new subdivisions didn’t cause the overcrowding on the east side directly. Instead, they initiated a chain reaction.”
According to National Public Radio, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) “furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African American neighborhoods- a policy known as redlining.”
These “security maps” created by the New Deal agency called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), “recruited mortgage lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers in nearly 250 cities to create maps that color-coded credit worthiness and risk on neighborhood and metropolitan levels.” In addition, the FHA was subsidizing builders who would ensure that no homes would be sold to blacks. According to Richard Rothstein, these practices created nationwide ghettos “surrounded by white suburbs.”
By 1920, 75% of the population on the east side was African American. The lines were beginning to be drawn.
Brown v. Board of Education and the Beginning of the Troost Divide
Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 ruled that segregation of schools was unconstitutional, but it didn’t stop Kansas City from continuing their practice of segregation. The state left it up to the school districts to decide whether it even happened.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, the Kansas City School Board took pen to paper and redrew the boundaries to ensure schools stayed segregated. Tanner Colby, author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black, wrote, “Starting in 1955, the city announced that school enrollment would be based on neighborhood attendance zones- neighborhoods that just happened to be all white or all black.” With the move of the boundaries, there was significant gerrymandering that quickly coded one neighborhood or another- depending on where it fell along Troost.
The “attendance zones” drawn by the School Board redlined the community along Troost Ave.
According to Kevin Fox Gotham, “Into the 1970s, the School Board made frequent shifts in attendance areas of its schools, typically removing white areas from the western-most portions of its racially transitional zones and attaching them to all-white zones further west.”
The division at Troost Ave. coupled with blockbusting evoked a mass exodus of white families to communities outside of the Kansas City district and into areas such as Johnson County, South Kansas City and Raytown.
In 1954, Central High School was 100 percent white. Six years later, the school was 90 percent black. Paseo High School was 10- percent white in 1954, and by 1970, Paseo was 99 percent black. Schools west of Troost remained to have a high population of whites while schools east of it were overcrowded and underfunded. James Shortridge explained, “The city grew by nearly 220 square miles throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the school district stayed the same size.”
In the 1960s, Central High School was bursting at the seams, and the school district set out to shift the boundary lines once again. On June 27, 1963, the Kansas City Times reported the Board’s findings on what to do with overpopulation on the east side. They stated, “The board recognizes that the discussion of solving overcrowded conditions at Central High School is occurring at a time when racial tensions are increasing across the country. The Kansas City schools have a respectable record of integration.”
They shifted the attendance boundaries once again, and this further reinforced neighborhood segregation despite their denial of a problem. In 1969, the School Board asked for a tax increase to support public schools, but it didn’t pass. According to Kevin Fox Gotham, “Nineteen additional proposals for school support would appear on the ballot for the next two decades, but none of them passed.”
Kansas City continued to be one of the most segregated (and underfunded) school systems in the nation into the 1970s with its line falling at Troost. “Once a thriving commercial artery, Troost turned into the frontline of a long and bitter turf war in which both armies retreated and turned their backs on it,” Tanner Colby explained.
Troost was an endless dividing line between black and white schools, neighborhoods, wealth, and development opportunities that began with the school district’s decision to segregate through attendance zones.
Redlining at the Troost Divide for the future
In our current climate, fingers are pointing toward figures such as J.C. Nichols as the fundamental reason Kansas City’s cultural geography is the way it is today. In truth, there were many factors that led to racial segregation, and one of the most predominate is the red line that still can be seen along Troost Ave.
Government actions, real estate practices, U.S. Supreme Court cases, and demographic shifts in the late nineteenth and twentieth century led us to where we are today. This wasn’t created solely by real estate development to the south and to the west; rather, segregation was further exhorted as white flight moved families outside of the boundaries of the Kansas City School District.
James Shortridge wrote of the Troost Divide, “Its persistence more than a generation later as a major cultural divide is evidence that Kansas City never dealt successfully with segregated schools” and this “explains much of the community’s cultural geography.”
This story will be continued in the next issue of the Telegraph where we will explore the federal investigation of the Troost Divide, the Kansas City schools and the annexation of districts to the south.