Segregation in KC: How the school district helped create the Troost Divide

From the 1970s into the 1990s, the future of the KC School District was in peril as a result of the exodus to the suburbs and the outcome of an eight-year long lawsuit that has lasting effects even today.

Cover photo: Central High School at 3221 Indiana. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

Segregation in KC

How the School District Helped Create the Troost Divide

By Diane Euston  with contributing historian Tim Reidy

  When it comes to the topic of racial segregation in Kansas City, fingers can point to several groups or people for the problem that still exists today.  It’s much larger than one event or one person. Baby boomers can recall the 1968 Race Riots in Kansas City, perpetuated by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. while others refer to the real estate covenants excluding African Americans and how they split our city in two. 

  Most have heard of the “Troost Wall” or the “Troost Divide” as a boundary between black and white- rich and poor.  In the last issue, we explored how the Kansas City School Board created what we know as the “Troost Wall” or “Troost Divide” in our city. After Brown v. Board of Education, the Kansas City School District (KCSD) started to quickly decline when all public schools were ordered to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”

Boundaries of the Kansas City Public Schools in 1952. Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library


  The school district redrew the boundary lines according to neighborhood “attendance zones” that happened to be all white or all black. In the mid 1950s, suburban areas began to grow at alarming speeds and became a haven for post-war families. The decision to desegregate schools accelerated Johnson County, Ks. growth as families looked for alternatives. The population of Johnson Co., Ks.  more than doubled between 1950 and 1960. The creation of subdivisions sprinkled with small, convenient shopping centers in locations such as Raytown, Ruskin Heights, Hickman Mills, and Grandview supplied white suburbanites other places to settle down. White flight from the Kansas City School District had begun.

  While whites moved out, the all-white Kansas City school board over the next two decades constantly shifted attendance boundaries. Between 1954 and 1973, the four high schools east of Troost changed from three all-white schools and one all-black (Lincoln) to a 97% black enrollment in all four schools.

  Dr. Derald Davis, Assistant Superintendent of Equity, Inclusion and Innovation with KCPS stated, “The legacy of racism and classism in Kansas City, Missouri has left a permanent stain in the culture, traditions, and policies of our city.” 

  From the 1970s into the 1990s, the future of the KCSD was in peril as a result of the exodus to the suburbs and the outcome of an eight-year long lawsuit that has lasting effects even today.

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Swarming to Suburbia

  After World War II, many soldiers returned home, got married, and started a family. Affordable housing wasn’t the only concern for these young couples- they wanted to ensure the place where they called home also had quality schools. Builders threw up housing as quickly as possible. In Ruskin Heights south of the city, the first tract housing development was built. Grandview saw substantial growth due to its location near Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base. Raytown offered affordable housing and newly-built schools. 

  James Shortridge, author of Kansas City and How it Grew explains, “These schools [in the suburbs] were established as alternatives to the troubled Kansas City system, and minority students were scarce before the late 1980s.” As the suburbs exploded in the 1950s and 1960s, Kansas City’s schools were facing serious problems. As the district was forced to integrate, there was a white exodus to the suburbs. 

  Schools in Kansas City were in disrepair. Quality teachers left for suburban districts, and within a short amount of time, test scores began to fall.

Under Federal Investigation 

  In the 1970s, Kansas City remained to be one of the most segregated school systems in the nation. The school district was under scrutiny by the NAACP and other organizations because of the startling segregation that still existed within the schools. 

  In 1973, a lawsuit was filed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) demanding desegregation in the high schools. The school board responded by adopting an integration plan that affected only 17 of the district’s 98 schools. The district bused about 700 of the district’s 65,000 students. To no surprise, the plan failed. 

   In 1975, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) launched a federal investigation and found that the school district was illegally segregating schools by continuously moving the attendance boundaries- with the line falling at Troost Ave. 

  HEW used money to force change on the school district- if KCPS didn’t solve this inherent segregation within the schools, they would lose federal funding. The school district tried to bus students to ensure schools were at least 30% African-American, but the plan was unsuccessful. Kevin Fox Gotham, author of Race, Real Estate and Uneven Development wrote, “In 1977, eight out of ten African-American children in the district attended schools that were 90% black while the majority of white students attended schools that were more than 90% white.”

  Part of the problem of integrating schools was the declining number of white students within the district. White families had moved at alarming speeds to the suburbs. Anomalies in the heart of the communities built by J.C. Nichols such as the Country Club District can still be seen. The people living in these neighborhoods- predominately white- pay taxes into KCPS but choose to send their students to five conveniently located private schools: Barstow, Notre Dame de Sion, Pembroke Hill, Rockhurst, and St. Teresa’s.


Missouri v. Jenkins

  Out of solutions within its boundaries, the Kansas City School District filed a lawsuit in 1977 on behalf of its students against the state of Kansas, Missouri, and the eighteen suburban districts in the metropolitan area. The KCSD alleged it was the joint responsibility of the states and the suburban districts to be part of the solution to desegregate public schools in Kansas City. In that same year, the school district hired their first black superintendent, Robert R. Wheeler.

  In 1957, Missouri House Bill 171 barred school district boundaries from automatically growing when Kansas City annexed land. Through annexations, Kansas City grew by nearly 220 square miles throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the school district remained the same size. White flight from the urban core crippled the number of white students as families left for outlying Kansas City communities such as Hickman Mills, Raytown, Independence, Grandview, and Ruskin Heights. KCSD thought a viable plan for desegregation of schools was to merge these schools and create one large metropolitan district. 

  The state of Kansas was eventually dismissed from the lawsuit, but the battle continued in court for eight years.  By 1981, 72.6% of Kansas City’s students were non-white. While the KCSD alleged racial descrimination was at play in the decisions of suburban districts against merging, the U.S. District Court of Western Missouri ruled in 1984 that there were not signs of overt or intentional discrimination. 

   In 1985, Federal Judge Russell G. Clark ruled against the idea of a metropolitan school district, noting that the suburban districts “were not responsible for Kansas City’s problem.” It was ordered that the KCSD come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the funds to pay for it. Desegregation, it appeared, fell onto the state of Missouri and the school district- a district with a 73% minority population. James Shortridge wrote, “One federal judges who became involved with the issue said that he had never seen a prison in such bad shape as the Kansas City schools of the 1980s.”

  The problem was there weren’t that many white students, and it’s hard to integrate schools when there is no one to integrate with. 

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From “An Equity Profile of the Kansas City Region” published by PolicyLink and PERE

Throwing Money at a Systemic Problem

  Because the plan would cost a lot to execute and schools were already in disrepair, the court ordered that property taxes be raised and the state needed to fund the rest. Thus, an extra $200 million dollars per year was funnelled into the district’s budget.

  The hope in the 1980s was to build one of the best school districts in the nation. Fifteen brand-new buildings were constructed while 54 old ones were remodeled. They created nearly five dozen magnet schools which concentrated on subjects such as computer science, foreign languages, and classical Greek athletics.  James Shortridge explains, “If the quality of instruction was high, the buildings modern, and the programs innovative, students from all over the region would want to attend.”

  Money clearly was no object. Schools featured amenities such as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, a robotics lab, a film studio, theatres, a mock court, and a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability. Central High School had computers for every student.

  At one point, 44% of the entire state budget for education was going to just nine percent of the state’s students in St. Louis and Kansas City. The state was spending more on desegregation than it was spending on prisons, courts, the highway patrol, and the state fire marshal combined.

  The hope with all of these new facilities and advancements was to attract 5,000 to 10,000 white students back to the district, but the plan failed. The largest number of white students ever enrolled was 1,500 – and most returned to their old schools after one year. Test scores continued to fall.

  Lack of student performance was likely the main reason for the failure of KCSD in the 1980s and 1990s. James Shortridge points to the quality of instruction as a serious issue. Shortridge wrote, “It is a sad story, but Kansas City people sacrificed quality of education to the shorter-term goals of integration and job retention.”

  By the 1990s, over $2 billion dollars had been invested into the school system. Even with the extra funding, the city remained deeply divided racially, economically and geographically as ever.

African-American Flight to the Suburbs of the South

  As Kansas City schools fought to revitalize with funding, many middle-class black families left the district for bordering communities. Communities such as Raytown had openly used racial profiling in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s, black families moved into the area seeking better opportunities. Ironically, many of the white community members in Raytown resisting this change had much in common with them. A generation before, white flight had moved this group to the suburbs, and African-Americans were doing the same in the name of opportunity- especially as it pertained to schools. 

  By 1980, Raytown’s western and northern sections were 25% black. 

  In the 1950s and 1960s, the Hickman Mills school district was booming with a population of 13,000. In 1968, there were only two non-white students in the district. By 1990, Hickman Mills and Ruskin Heights was 37% African-American- the highest outside of KCPS. As more black families moved in, whites left for schools in other districts. Aging housing stock in the neighborhoods and a shift in demographics had housing prices dropping. By 2011, the Hickman Mills school district had shrunk to less than half its size in the 1960s.

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Image from Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service/University of Virginia

Solutions for Tomorrow

  In the past two decades, Kansas City, according to an Urban League report, has moved to being a district of “education choice” due to the addition of charter schools in the last twenty years. The 2019 report proclaims KCPS “is more segregated today than in the 1990s” and found that charter schools aren’t opening in neighborhoods that need better schools; rather, charter schools tend to exist and thrive in middle-class neighborhoods.

  Even though the district is still predominantly black and is now 25% Latino, families are leaving the city for educational opportunities in other districts. The Urban League Report states, “Hickman Mills had become predominantly African-Amerian . . . and Raytown- once an epicenter of racial exclusion – served a sizeable black population.” 

  The systemic problems within Kansas City schools started with the invisible line drawn at Troost Ave. in the 1950s. This continued into the 1980s, and it could be argued that it still- at least in racial makeup and housing prices- exists today. Kevin Fox Gotham, author of Some of My Best Friends are Black, wrote, “Still today, nearly every zip code, every census tract, every voting ward – and for a long time, every school district- all split along Troost.”

  This redline isn’t unique to Kansas City. “Most every city in America has a Troost,” Gotham stated. Kansas City’s systemic problem has continued to exist after so many attempts to solve it. Consolidation efforts failed, remodeling the schools, and extensive funding didn’t draw white students back to the district. Today, with a population of 10% white within the district, desegregation of the schools is next to impossible.

  Dr. Derald Davis, Assistant Superintendent at Kansas City Public Schools commented, “Now is the time to dismantle systems of racism that have kept some neighborhoods, and many schools, under-resourced and disenfranchised for decades.” 

  This problem has persisted since the 1950s and still desperately needs a solution.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To learn more about the Troost Divide and racial segregation in Kansas City, go to

1 thought on “Segregation in KC: How the school district helped create the Troost Divide

  1. Some of My Best Friends are Black is an excellent book. It was written by Tanner Colby, not whoever you mentioned. Thanks for the article.

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