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curiousKC: A Visual History on Racial Distribution in the Metro Checking the Maps

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Above image credit: Children pose for the camera on Oct. 3, 1936 at the Guadalupe Center, a social service agency that serves Latinos in the Midwest. (Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library)
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5 minute read

Kansas City has a storied history of racism and segregation, one that’s been documented well by local historians such as Sherry Schirmer, who wrote a book on the perception of race in the metro and its impact on development. 

According to history, the blueprint of segregation shaped the Metro in the 1920s through the 1950s, however its imprint is still visible today, says Sandra Enriquez, a historian at the University of Kansas City-Missouri.

“Race is so embedded into the way that urban development happened and the way that the government aided racism through affordable housing,” Enriquez said. “All of these policies, all of these stories and all of these incentives were meant for white people. Not for communities of color.” 

This research is in response to the following question sent to us by an anonymous follower of curiousKC:

“Is there any truth to rumors that Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri are divided, almost segregated into specific racial communities?”

The short answer: yes. But the longer answer is a layered history of racist beliefs, practices and policies that influenced urban planning. 

Between the 1820s and 1830s, many Native American tribes were forcibly removed as white settlers initially moved into the Westport area, according to the Kansas City Public Library. Native Americans then migrated to other locations. As it stands today, remnants of 98 tribes remain in the metro area, according to VisitKC. 

As the area developed it became more segregated, influencing the way racial communities were dispersed. The “Mapping Inequality” database reveals a fascinating history of segregation in the U.S. and in the Kansas City area.  

Greater Kansas City map
The Greater Kansas City Area was racially divided by redlining, as shown by the red on this map denoting “hazardous” areas of town in the 1920s. (“Mapping Inequality” | University of Richmond)

The project, a collaboration between the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland, researched redlining in the U.S. In analyzing their findings on the Kansas City metro area, a few themes emerge.

After the Great Depression, the U.S. government assigned the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation to assess the riskiness of mortgages.  What ensued left lasting imprints of how discrimination and racism shaped the American housing policy, transforming neighborhoods across the U.S. and in Kansas City.    

The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation classified “risky” and “safe” areas in large part by demographics. Many of the neighborhoods where minority populations lived were marked on maps in red, which became known as red-lining. Minority occupants were considered high risk for mortgage lenders.

This powered racially restrictive deeds, which impacted who could own property and who could not, according to the Kansas City Public Library

J.C. Nichols, a well-known city planner and real estate developer, was a major player in racist development practices. He’s known for instituting racial covenants that excluded or made it harder for some people — determined by socioeconomic status and race — to purchase homes in certain parts of the metro.  

J.C. Nichols
J.C. Nichols was a Kansas City developer and city planner known for practices that perpetuated segregation. (Library of Congress)

“You can still see the areas that have racial covenants today,” Enriquez said. “Mission Hills, you have areas in Johnson County and Prairie Village. Yeah, they’re the nicer parts of town but that’s for a reason and that’s because they were protected by these racial covenants.”

What does that mean? Simply put, segregation. 

Four of the main factors that spurred intentional segregation include blockbusting, urban renewal, restrictive covenants and public schools, according to Mid-America Regional Council’s report on integration and segregation. This effort was propelled by real estate agents, the report revealed:

“Many real estate professionals systematically attempted to keep neighborhoods either all white or all black. … Such real estate agents would actively incite racial fear in order to stimulate white flight, a practice called ‘blockbusting.’” 

Therefore, clusters of black, Italian and Hispanic families tended to live near the West Bottoms, while white families lived in areas tagged with “desirable” gold stars. Here’s a look at the old maps.  

How it looked:   

Closer look at examples of redlining and percent demographics
Zooming into the area close to the river shows what racial communities lived where. The areas colored in red were considered “hazardous.” (Data: “Mapping Inequality” | University of Richmond)

Here’s what one note read about area D20, highlighted in the map above, that reveals how this area was categorized as “hazardous”: 

“This section is occupied by a low class of people, Mexicans and negroes predominating almost entirely. Mexicans are also scattered throughout the Quality Hill section where is also found a very poor type of people throughout including some negroes. There is no market for property in this area. It has the advantage of being close in but is unattractive to the better class of clerks and business salespeople because of its surroundings and poor type of citizenry in the area generally.”

Area description - redlining notes
An area description of D20, see the description above, reveals that the area South of the Kansas City airport was considered “hazardous” because of the demographic: “Mexicans and mixture.” (“Mapping Inequality” | University of Richmond)

Categories based on these distinctions back then have a ripple effect today, restricting access to loans, steering the real estate market and ultimately shaping Kansas City’s different neighborhoods and demographic distribution. According to the Mid-America Regional Council’s Fair Housing and Equity Assessment from 2014, certain areas had higher concentrations of ethnic and racial groups such as Native American or Hispanic. Research from 2010 by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia also has data that shows clusters of different racial groups in various parts of the metro.

We know there is a much longer answer but the gist is, this is how Kansas City maps out.

Racial dot map
Here’s a screenshot of the “Racial Dot Map” by Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. (Screenshot)

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