By Jill Draper
While lawmakers continue to debate how schools should be allowed to teach Black history and racial bias, many people in the metro area are educating themselves. A year-long exhibit, “Redlined,” at the Johnson County Museum in Overland Park was the most popular exhibit in recent years, according to museum director Mary McMurray, who calls the community response “astounding.”
Redlining was the practice of color-coding maps used by the Federal Housing Administration to deny mortgages and insurance loans to minorities, especially Blacks, in neighborhoods throughout the nation. This began in the 1930s, but realtors already had created restrictive covenants that limited the sale of certain properties to the Caucasian race years before.
Readers will be familiar with many of the local neighborhoods that restricted Blacks and sometimes Jews, Latinos and other ethnic groups: Overland Park, Prairie Village, Mission Hills and Roeland Park are just a few of hundreds. These restrictions covered both sides of the state line and extended into south Kansas City in places like Brookside, Leawood and Waldo.
Karol O’Brien lives in the same house she grew up in, located in Waldo’s Brownwood Park neighborhood, which stretches from 71st to 73rd streets and Troost to Holmes Road. Her home’s paperwork prohibited selling or leasing the property to any person of African descent in a 1929 declaration.
“I remember the ‘White Flight’ in the 1950s and real estate agents trying to get us to move south, but mom and dad stayed,” says O’Brien.
Leawood resident Dave Leathers remembers his father, journalist Tom Leathers, writing about similar deed restrictions in the 1960s-1970s in The Leawood Squire. At that time Bobby Bell, linebacker and defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs, was trying to buy a house in the community. His offers were rejected some 100 times before he found a builder who sold him property near 95th Street and Mission. Leathers received death threats for publishing his stories and Bell, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was stopped daily by police for a while.
The museum exhibit closed in January, but a 73-page book describing the display is still available as well as a free, narrated auto tour that takes the driver on a local journey through the history of segregation.
Sponsored by the Johnson County Library, the tour begins in Prairie Village and crosses into Brookside before heading north to the Plaza and looping around downtown, ending in the Ivanhoe neighborhood east of Troost. There’s also a virtual tour that can be viewed in three 30-minute videos (find details about both tours at jocolibrary.org/dividinglines).
Realtors played a gatekeeper role in promoting segregation, argues Gene Slater, author of the 2021 book, “Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America.” He spoke online with the “Redlined” exhibit’s curator Andrew Gustafson last year.
“By the 1960s Blacks remained totally excluded from 98% of new homes and 95% of all neighborhoods,” says Slater, who notes that realtors and federal officials created a self-fulfilling prophecy when they claimed Blacks would drive down property values regardless of whether they could afford the property.
The “Redlined” exhibit also talks about the influence of J.C. Nichols, who developed Country Club Plaza and other areas, including Red Bridge Shopping Center and surrounding neighborhoods. He pioneered the idea of a homes association which contained racial restrictions not just for a single property, but for whole subdivisions. While that practice was outlawed by the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act, the system continued through the reorganization of school boundaries, according to the exhibit.
“It’s very sad and pathetic, but up until 1968 it was against our code of ethics to help people of color find a home,” says Bobbi Howe, former president of the 12,000-member Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors in Leawood. The association offers a course on fair housing, and last fall it became mandatory for new member orientation. “We decided it was an important enough topic that everyone needed to be trained on it,” Howe says.
Last spring Howe was honored by the National Association of Realtors for her work as a speaker and podcast host in spreading the word about systemic racism in real estate and advocating for fair housing. The honor came with a $4,000 prize for a housing-related nonprofit of her choice, and Howe selected the Veterans Community Project, the tiny house organization that helps homeless veterans at 89th and Troost Avenue in south KC.
“Redlined” concludes with examples of the long-standing effects of segregation in cities today. Hundreds of hours of staff research, 120 books, articles and dissertations, and thousands of documents from regional and national archives went into its making. “It was a deep dive, like a master’s thesis,” sums up museum director McMurray.
A fundraising campaign to put the exhibit permanently online is underway. McMurray hopes the dedicated website will be up and running by next year. For more, see jcprd.com/redlined.
1 thought on “Redlining: Denying Blacks housing in the suburbs”
I have a LOT of info about this issue as I lived it, My parents (both WHite) bought a house & I bought a house East of Troost, East of Paseo many decades ago. Many of the neighborhoods were white then & are still mixed today. Troost was only picked as a dividing line because it ran STRAIGHT through the whole city (then) & was set up by Insurance companies, NOT by the color of people that lived or wanted to live there.