Published June 26th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
A 1954 all-electric model home sits just outside the entrance to the Johnson County Museum’s current — and terrific — yearlong exhibit about the devastating practice of redlining. In front of the house sits a turquoise and white 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air.
“This was the ideal of the American dream,” says Andrew R. Gustafson, part of the museum’s staff that organized the redlining exhibit, which shows in depressing detail how white supremacist thinking behind discriminatory real estate and lending practices and government policies made sure that this model home and others like it were occupied only by white families.
“Suburbanization,” says Gustafson, “is one of Johnson County’s main stories and you can’t get to suburbanization without the history of redlining.”
His background in European history meant Gustafson had to learn about redlining. It’s an old story for me, one I wrote about decades ago. So it’s gratifying now to see this history being made available to everyone in the Kansas City area.
As a Kansas City Star reporter, I spent a good part of 1975 writing three long stories about white-to-Black racial turnover in southeast Kansas City. In one of them I used public records to show that about 50 square miles of the central city — from Truman Road south to 75th Street and from Troost Avenue east to Interstate 435 — had been redlined by conventional mortgage lenders.
That meant that Black families living in and near that area were unable to buy homes with mortgages from savings and loans or banks. If they could buy at all, it was by using hard-to-get federally guaranteed loans from the VA (Veterans Administration) or FHA (Federal Housing Administration) or by arranging private financing, often with the seller holding the mortgage. So many, if not most, Black families were unable to build family wealth through real estate the way many white families could.
Carmaletta Williams, chief executive officer of the Black Archives of Mid-America, an agency that helped put the redlining exhibit together, says one of the ironies of this system built on racial fear was that “the Black community wasn’t eager or even insistent on moving next to white people. We had our own communities where we looked out for each other and participated in building successful futures for our families, especially our children.”
As Williams puts it, “Racism in redlining and other acts … put unnecessary physical, emotional and financial burdens on our communities.”
Drawing red lines around certain areas of the city considered unworthy of investments in homeownership damaged not just greater Kansas City but also other communities around the country in countless ways.
That segregationist system worked exactly as it was designed, making not just white families in Johnson County rich, but also real estate developers such as J.C. Nichols by using racially restrictive covenants that kept white families from selling to Blacks (or Jews, for that matter).
“I talk about it as a two-part system,” says Gustafson. “You have redlining keeping people (of color) within the city core and you have redlining pushing other populations (white) out. And the VA and FHA and the real estate industry are there to welcome people fleeing into suburban developments.”
Fleeing, it should be said, often by using government-funded interstate highways to commute between their jobs and their segregated neighborhoods.
I asked Gustafson what he wants people to learn from the redlining exhibit.
“I think it’s important,” he said, “to walk away realizing that our communities didn’t just develop as they are. There was intent behind them. There were reasons they developed as they did — why certain people live in certain areas and why certain communities are built the way they are and why that continues. We realized as a (museum) staff going through this history that the voices most impacted by this history were never at the table when the policies were being created and even when the policies were being uncreated.”
Carmaletta Williams has another idea about what people should take away from the exhibit.
“Every white person … should walk away from it angry … angry that people who were in a position of power and authority did not combat and counter the efforts of J. C. Nichols to bring his racist ideology to fruition right in front of their faces. They should be angry that so many people across the country found in his ‘theory’ a means to perpetuate racial segregation on the highest levels. They should be angry that because of his actions, they now wear the faces of whiteness that represent those racist attitudes.”
And, she adds: “Black people who leave the exhibition should feel a certain lamentation, a loss, of the possibilities and the realities of their lives. They should feel angry that their lives and the futures they were building were channeled and changed by powers outside of their control. They should want to absorb all that vacated and stolen power and use it to control their own destinies and re-institute the dreams of their ancestors and of their own. The red lines still exist physically as well as emotionally. They must be erased.”
Of course, if so many people weren’t ignorant — sometimes, no doubt, willfully so — of redlining and related racist practices and policies, this kind of exhibit would be unnecessary. But that ignorance makes the exhibit a must for area residents. And they have until Jan. 7, 2023, to see it.
One of the most helpful parts of the exhibit shows the many legacies this practice left for the metro area.
“There was a common misconception,” Gustafson says, “that the Civil Rights era ended redlining and everything should be equal after that. I didn’t realize how much the system is still in operation.”
For instance, a display called “REDLINING’S (UN)INTENDED CONSEQUENCES” lists 15 results that continue to hurt redlined areas, from lower homeownership rates for African Americans, to higher average temperatures, to lower educational achievements, to more pollution, to lower life expectancy and more.
“All these things tie back into disinvestment,” Gustafson says.
And all these continuing problems grew directly from policies and practices rooted in the idea that white people are superior to people of color and should live separately. But at least now, thanks to exhibits like “Redlining,” we can learn what our ancestors did and think about how we can do differently today.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.