A Wrong Made Right: In Honor of Yvonne Wilson

(originally published 10/17/19)

Yvonne Wilson

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 – This morning, I woke to the radio telling me Yvonne Wilson had passed away. Wilson was a long-time local community leader who served in the Missouri State House for ten years, and during that tenure surely everyone living in Kansas City central has benefited from her hard work, in any number of fields and any number of neighborhoods. I immediately thought of her role in one of the most controversial issues in Kansas City in the last 100 years, the practice of racial restrictions that were part of the Country Club District legacy.

I learned of Senator Wilson’s role while researching my book on Greenway Fields, a neighborhood in the heart of the Country Club District. This week, I’m sharing the related piece that appears in that book, to honor the senator, and as a reminder that history’s impact continues longer than we often realize.

Racial divides have been a part of Kansas City’s history since the mid-19th century, when the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were defining lines of slavery and freedom under the law. Those definitions were the basis for the Kansas-Missouri border conflicts preceding and during the Civil War. The cultural habits of segregation were institutionalized following the Civil War by what came to be known as “Jim Crow” laws. The “separate-but-equal” doctrine of the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 defined how whites and blacks lived not so much together as in parallel. In the years directly after that war, Kansas City had its own dividing line. Those who lived west of Kansas City’s Main Street were generally considered to have been Union supporters, while those on the east side were assumed to be Southern sympathizers.

Housing was one of the cultural pillars that defined “separate-but-equal.” The market had many ways of ensuring racial separation in housing. Property values and bank lending practices certainly played an important role, but in the context of Greenway Fields and its fellow Country Club District neighborhoods, segregation was formalized through the Nichols Company’s deed restrictions, which contained one very specific and forthright clause. Under one of the last and shortest sections in the document, a section titled “Ownership by Negroes Prohibited,” the restriction stated “[t]hat none of the lots in this addition shall be conveyed to, used, owned or occupied by Negroes as owners or tenants.”

Signing of the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968 made it to the front page of the Kansas City Times, but it wasn’t the headline. Ironically, that distinction went to a report of the local “Holy Day” riots following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Much later events in Kansas City’s history of racial divide, including the riots prompted by Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, the red-lining practices of the 1970s, and the social, economic and educational disparities associated with Kansas City’s infamous school desegregation plan, have been attributed in large part to J.C. Nichols’ use of these restrictions. The very fact that he used those restrictions has been enough to create a generation of Kansas Citians who see Nichols and his Country Club District as both responsible for and emblematic of these divisions. A more considered view is that while Nichols was not the first or only developer of his era to use racial restrictions, the racial restrictions did at a minimum perpetuate the belief that “separate-but-equal” was a viable approach to managing a segregated society.

Despite the lessons taught by history, and the legal reality of a post-Civil Rights Act world, the language of the racial restrictions remained, not in force, but in print in the documents. When Nichols created his deed restrictions, his primary interest was in dictating the form of development. His restrictions were detailed and relatively lengthy when it came to describing the square footage of a house, its minimum sale price, what outbuildings would not be allowed on the property, or how far back the house sat from the property lines. The deed restrictions applied to the individual subdivisions, but they were also then incorporated into each home owners’ association agreement. In the context of that contract, the restrictions are often referred to as covenants.

If any of his deed restrictions were to be changed in the future, Nichols wanted to ensure that it was through a very long and deliberate act of the home owners association, not a casual nor easily accomplished feat. So in those restrictions and subsequently in the parallel home owners association agreements, change was only allowed through a formal action that could only be initiated once every twenty five years, that required a preliminary agreement of the home owners exactly five years before that twenty-five-year deadline, and required the agreement of the property owners who owned a majority of the front footage of the affected subdivision. It was an effective structure. Almost 100 years after the first of these documents was filed, no home owners association has been identified that has successfully amended its restrictions.

So, even when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, unequivocally striking down the right to discriminate in any situation on the basis of race, the language of the restrictions stayed in the individual home owners’ deeds, and in the home owners’ association agreements. Unrelated to the discrimination issue, it is a rule that these documents as they appear in the property’s title are the foundational history of individual lots, and can’t be altered by individual initiative. But this bit of legal esoterica wasn’t generally known or considered an issue until the story of one Greenway Fields resident came to light.

Kim Wrench was a homeowner in the Greenway Fields Neighborhood in 2005, and was featured in the Star’s original reporting.

In February of 2005, the Kansas City Star published an article about the racial clause found in many homes association restrictions, not just those of the Country Club District. The Star’s reporter, Judy Thomas, made the issues and their impacts more personal by framing the impact from the perspective of a black homeowner who happened to be a resident of Greenway Fields. The article, “`Curse of covenant’ persists – Restrictive rules, while unenforceable, have lingering legacy,” provided a solid overview on the history of the covenants, but its focus was on that “lingering legacy.” The Greenway Fields homeowner, Kim Wrench, a black man in his 50s, captured the sentiment well in Thomas’ article. “It’s ridiculous that it even has to be in there…I look at it as being a form of ignorance and stupidity.”

Thomas’ article captured the essential problem with the racial clause’s persistent presence. The change in civil rights laws provided legal protection, but the fact was that racial language still had the power to offend, and even frighten. That ability to intimidate, some contended, was itself a form of discrimination. It was as if the signs that once identified a lunch counter as “whites only” or a drinking fountain as “for coloreds,’ had been left in place as a sort of historic novelty, without regard for the effect.

Long-time Kansas City Star investigative reporter Judy Thomas

Immediately, Thomas’ article had an impact. The article included statements by Missouri State Senator Yvonne Wilson, who represented the area at the time. Wilson, herself black, not only expressed her surprise and concern, but she promised to take the matter to the Missouri General Assembly immediately. As it happened, the state path was the most viable option for amending the association agreements. There was legal precedent for state legislation to pass laws that enabled both the associations and the individual property owners to cross out the discriminatory language in their documents.

Wilson’s efforts paid off quickly. By April, the state had passed a bill not merely allowing the language to be redacted, but requiring it to be removed within 30 days of a complaint. And just days after the bill was passed, the Greenway Fields experience with its successful outcome for the state of Missouri was featured in a New York Times article on the same subject.

Notes: While honoring Sen.Wilson, I would be remiss not to honor as well the important role Kansas City Star reporter Judy L. Thomas played in this event. Thomas, who is thankfully still at the Star, not only brought the story to the broader public, more importantly she brought it to the attention of change makers. This is indicative of the great reporting she has contributed in her tenure at the Star, where she may be most associated with her pivotal investigative reporting on the ex-clergy sexual abuse cases within the local Catholic diocese.

Also, a note to clarify the references to the Civil Rights Act. The US has instituted a series of Civil Rights Acts beginning in 1866, each one applying broader rights in relation to different subjects, (i.e. employment). President Lyndon Johnson signed the well-known Civil Rights Act of 1964, and four years later, on the heals of the King assassination, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

(Featured Photo: An early billboard promoting the Country Club District leads with the enticement “1000 acres restricted.” While the long list of restrictions was mostly focused on matters regarding the construction and uses of the buildings, the term today rightly focuses on the single clause prohibiting blacks. Courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri-KC, Nichols Company Scrapbooks)

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