Published August 13th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
The scale of the court exhibit, eight feet tall by four feet wide, reflected the scope of the story it told.
Black Kansas City homeowners simply didn’t stand a chance. Not if they wanted to outflank racially restrictive housing covenants intent on isolating them in older and increasingly dilapidated neighborhoods.
Kansas City’s landmark public school desegregation case, filed in 1977 and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995, illuminated racist housing practices that ruled local residential real estate for decades, long after such blatant maneuvers were declared illegal.
Following the recent Black Lives Matter protests galvanized by the police killing of George Floyd, developer J.C. (Jesse Clyde) Nichols has been lambasted locally for propagating racially exclusive deed restrictions. Nichols’ name has been unceremoniously removed from a street and the grand sculpture fountain adjacent to the Country Club Plaza, the architecturally significant shopping district he developed.
Those actions came none too soon, in the view of the attorney who led the desegregation case, Arthur A. Benson.
Nichols not only weaponized restrictive housing covenants into documents that carried weight long after subdivisions were initially created, he furthered their usage nationwide through his stature among other high-profile developers.
But Nichols wasn’t alone. He had many co-conspirators. In fact, one firm, Kroh Brothers Development Co., used deed restrictions to exclude a litany of racial and ethnic groups that went far beyond the Black community.
Indeed, a more complete and nuanced picture of how developers shaped Kansas City housing patterns and, by extension, public schools can be found in those old court records and property documents.
In preparation for the desegregation trial, Benson hired about 20 law students over two summers to ferret out every racially restrictive deed filed in Johnson, Jackson, Clay and Platte counties.
Benson then constructed the massive chart displayed in the courtroom. It was a map of the metro, with plastic overlays to show how, decade by decade, restrictive housing covenants tracked either alongside or ahead of the Black population as families tried to edge out of the central city, essentially corralling them in the poorest sections of the old urban core.
“There was a competitive spiraling between J.C. Nichols and the Kroh Brothers, almost like each was trying to outdo the other,” Benson said.
Kroh Brothers, like the J.C. Nichols Co., began with one enterprising turn-of-the-century businessman and then was passed down through succeeding generations.
Clifford Kroh, the founder, was a contemporary of J.C. Nichols.
In fact, Nichols once sold stock to investors for an early Kroh enterprise, the Thunder Mountain Gold Reef Mining and Development Corp. And Kroh’s brother-in-law formed a partnership with Nichols that developed the first 40-acre subdivision of the Country Club Plaza District, according to company history provided to a Kansas City Times reporter (Paul Wenske) by Clifford’s son, John A. Kroh Sr., in 1987.
After World War II, Kroh Brothers became a significant subdivision developer, incorporating many of the same features that Nichols used to develop his neighborhoods. Nichols neighborhoods were defined by “large lots, curvilinear streets, uniform architecture, extensive deed restrictions, and homes associations,” according to “Race, Real Estate, And Uneven Development; The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000” by Kevin Fox Gotham, a professor at Tulane University.
Yet the Kroh Brothers exceeded Nichols in one significant way. The deed restrictions they deployed were even more discriminatory.
Nichols had explicitly excluded Black people from owning, buying or leasing homes in his neighborhoods. Often, the discriminating language was included in Section 10 of a deed that covered many other restrictions, most intended to maintain the cohesive design of the development and values of the property.
The wording from a J.C. Nichols Investment Co. restriction filed for Armour Hills Gardens in 1933 is identical to that used for many other neighborhoods developed by the company: “None of the lots hereby restricted may be conveyed to, used, owned, nor occupied by negroes as owners or tenants.”
At least early on, Nichols also excluded Jewish people in practice, if not always in the official restrictive language of the deeds filed when land was platted, said William S. Worley, author of “J.C. Nichols And The Shaping of Kansas City.”
But during the same decades, restrictions filed by Kroh included a list of racial and ethnic exclusions that were almost ludicrous in scope, both Benson and Worley concurred.
Consider this deed restriction signed by John A. Kroh Sr., the founder’s son, and filed April 4, 1945 for Leawood Estates: “None of said lots or portions of lots shall ever be sold, conveyed, transferred, devised, leased or rented to or used, owned or occupied by any person of Negro blood or by any person who is more than one-fourth of the Semitic race, blood, origin, or extraction, including without limitation in said designation, Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Turks, Persians, Syrians, and Arabians, excluding, however, from the application of this paragraph partial occupancy by bona fide domestic servants employed thereon.”
In other words, those groups could be on the premises, but only if they were the hired help. Otherwise, only people perceived as White were allowed at Leawood Estates.
Local historians aren’t sure where the Kroh firm drew its inspiration for the litany of groups it excluded. Nichols initially borrowed the language for his restrictions against Black people from covenants written on the East Coast, as it was a widespread practice, even required by law, during most of his business career. Nichols lived from 1880 to 1950.
Clearly, the Kroh firm also opposed allowing Jewish people into their subdivisions, or anyone who could be perceived to have lineage from the Middle East.
Succeeding generations of the Nichols family have shown their support and understanding for recent efforts to address social justice and remove the family name from prestigious geographic markers.
The latest example is the decision by the Urban Land Institute, an organization that Nichols helped found, to strip his name from an annual $100,000 prize. The coveted annual honor will now be called the ULI Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Notably, the Nichols family will continue to fund the award.
Miller Nichols, son of J.C. Nichols, led the company for decades. In a 1984 profile in The Kansas City Times, he was asked about the company’s prior widespread use of racially restrictive housing covenants.
“What you’re talking about is the situation that existed throughout the United States,” Nichols replied. “A lot has changed, and I think it’s changed as a betterment for society as a whole. And we have changed with it.”
Descendants of Kroh Brothers, which ultimately failed in a spectacular, scandal-tinged bankruptcy in 1987, could not be reached for comment on the company’s old racially restrictive policies.
At its height, Kroh Brothers diversified from residential real estate into shopping centers and office buildings. Among other things, the company developed the original Ward Parkway Shopping Center. Eventually, Kroh developments stretched across the country, with a focus on shopping centers and office buildings, more than 100 developments in 13 states.
The bankruptcy case, and related federal criminal charges, brought courtroom drama made for today’s reality TV.
Clifford Kroh’s grandsons, John A. Kroh Jr. and George P. Kroh, led the enterprise at the time. George eventually testified against John. Both served time for bank fraud and conspiracy.
Because their civic imprint did not match that of Nichols, the Kroh name has been largely obscured in recent memory.
“The Kroh Brothers records got scattered to the four winds, but they were influential,” Worley said, adding that the use of racially restrictive deeds is “so much broader than Nichols.”
Benson likens the history of Kansas City’s housing segregation patterns to a relay race.
Restrictive covenants were an early, extremely efficient method of discrimination. But it was just one aspect. Once racially restrictive covenants were outlawed, other elements took the lead, such as federally backed mortgage insurance, appraisals and lenders that discriminated by refusing to do business in or near Black neighborhoods.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial deed restrictions were unenforceable. Yet from 1948 into the 1960s, there were 1,243 “explicit racial restrictive covenants recorded on Kansas City subdivisions,” according to research by Tulane’s Gotham. He concluded that the real estate industry in Kansas City filed more racially restrictive covenants after they were ruled legally unenforceable than in the previous four decades.
Gotham also tracked the use of racially restrictive covenants by county between 1900 and 1947. In Johnson County, 96% of the area’s subdivisions had racially restrictive deeds. In Platte, 74% were racially restrictive. The figure was 71% in Clay and 62% in Jackson.
The ways of doing business that developers such as Nichols and Kroh helped set in motion have proven remarkably resistant to subsequent fair housing efforts.
Even as late as 1977, manuals used by Missouri and Kansas appraisers ranked races and ethnicities by desirability in a neighborhood. White people were at the top of the list, Black people and Mexican-Americans were listed at the bottom, Gotham noted.
And always, housing was inextricably linked with public education. After the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case outlawed segregated public schools in 1954, the Kansas City School District, through its board, began shifting the boundaries. They simply redrew attendance lines to keep some schools predominantly white, Benson said.
That’s how Troost Avenue became cemented as a dividing line between Black and White residents, east to west.
On the Kansas side of the state line, meanwhile, marketing brochures touted racially homogeneous neighborhoods and the corresponding local schools, as being preferable and of higher quality.
“Any one of those threads is somewhat more easily broken,” Benson said. “But once they were entwined together, they were much harder to break, and they’d last longer.”
Alvin Brooks waited until just the right moment to reveal the gun at his hip.
It was October 1960. A crowd of about 300 people had gathered in the church at 28th Street and Prospect Avenue, then an all-White congregation.
Brooks would go on to become a high-profile political and civic leader in Kansas City. He was the founder of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, an assistant city manager, mayor pro-tem and a member of the police board.
But that fall day, he was a young police officer, a detective with the Kansas City Police Department. He also was a new homeowner, one of the few Black families on his block, where he and his wife had just purchased a home at 3336 Agnes Ave.
The church gathering was tense.
“If the Black families hadn’t been there too, I’m certain that the n-word would have been used,” Brooks said.
So he waited to take off his coat until he rose to speak, revealing his detective’s service firearm.
Brooks remembers chastising the crowd for being gullible, for buying into the blockbusting practices that were urging them to sell their homes on the cheap and flee to the suburbs. The same house would then be sold at a higher price, and interest rate, to Black people. Only the banks, Realtors and others in the industry were profiting.
“You are accusing us, fearing that your housing value is going down,” Brooks recalled saying. “You are putting signs in your yards because these racist Realtors are causing you to panic.”
When he finished, Brooks led as the Black families all filed out of the church. It was one of many searing moments in efforts to fight housing patterns wrought in part by housing covenants, and then blockbusting.
A look across the state line at the time also shows what Brooks was battling.
That same year, Prairie Village, a Nichols development, was named the country’s “best complete community” by the National Association of Home Builders. At the time, the area had more than 50,000 residents, but only two Black families, according to Gotham.
After the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, White flight from neighborhoods in Kansas City accelerated.
“White folks fled like someone was hunting quail,” Brooks said.
Brooks was one of many voices and organizations through the years that tried to stop discrimination that kept Black people from being able to partake in equity building through homeownership.
One leader particularly stands out.
Thomas A. Webster led the Urban League of Greater Kansas City from 1935 to 1958.
In May 1946, Webster wrote to the City Council, charging that the racial housing covenants were causing the only available housing for Black residents to become congested and dilapidated, writing “there is little area for expansion of the increased Negro population because of the use of restrictive covenants.”
His advocacy, especially after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, became so powerful that it riled civic leaders at the time, said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League.
Eventually, a precursor to the United Way of Greater Kansas City threatened to pull financial support for the Urban League. Webster resigned his position to save the organization, Grant said.
Today, Grant said measurable economic progress remains the most difficult area of social justice for the Urban League.
The median net worth of Black households in Kansas City is 10% ($17,600) of white households ($171,000), according to the Urban League’s 2019 State of Black Kansas City.
“It’s economics,” Grant said. “Black people have been systematically isolated from the economic framework by design. The system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.”
Brooks, his memory freshened by writing his memoirs, wholeheartedly agrees.
“America never intended for Black people to be equals or to be a part of the society,” Brooks, 88, said. “That’s why structural racism began.”
Flatland contributor Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Tribune Content Agency.