Kansas City – Not the Cradle of America’s Housing Segregation

I listen to Steve Kraske’s Up to Date on KCUR almost every day. I found the May 2nd conversation particularly fascinating. Steve’s guests were members of Kansas City’s reparations committee who, over the next year, are going to begin the process of actually addressing how reparations can best be made. I don’t envy them their task. It seems impossible to do, and particularly impossible to do so that everyone feels fairly compensated, individually or as a community. But I do believe in the idea. Like every city in America, Kansas City has a lot to account for.

But there is one thing Kansas City does NOT have to account for, and when I heard it referenced several times in the on-air discussion, I was moved to write this piece. I doubt I’ll ever get the word out enough to dispel all the misconceptions, but here goes.

Two of the members of the committee referred to Kansas City’s “unique” burden in considering reparations, meaning its legacy of discriminatory housing. These committee members, who included a UMKC professor, not once but twice labeled Kansas City as the home of deed restrictions designed to keep blacks from residing in artificially created whites-only neighborhoods. Specifically, they laid the blame to just one person, J.C. Nichols.

As one who has written a book on the subject of the Nichols Company’s Country Club District and makes regular appearances to groups of all kinds on the subject, I’m familiar with the fact that this misconception is out there. But when some months ago I attended a constitutional law lecture from the dean of the Berkley Law School, a leading member of the UMKC Law School faculty, serving as moderator, told the gathering that, in fact, racial restrictions were invented in Kansas City. That’s when I truly became concerned. That’s a powerful authoritative voice that has a lot of audiences, spreading a completely wrong depiction of Kansas City’s role. So when, in the course of the Kraske show, I heard it said that “J.C. Nichols created the blueprint for racial restrictions,” I decided to do what little I could to set the record straight by writing this post.

There is plenty of documentation on this subjection so if you want some sources, let me know. But if you find yourself in a casual conversation about any of this, there are only two things to understand and share:

#1 – Kansas City was not the first place to have racial restrictions, and J.C. Nichols did not invent them. In their early iterations, racial restrictions started appearing after the Civil War, most particularly with the new Jim Crow laws originating in the late 19th century. Interestingly, most of them first came from the famously abolitionist northeastern US, places like Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Maryland. Kansas City’s own Kersey Coates, who came here in 1854 from Pennsylvania, developed the Quality Hill neighborhood in 1857 as an exclusively white neighborhood, but his deed restrictions were more interested in requiring all houses be built of brick than that all residents be of a single race. The price of his houses made them effectively restricted to whites. As a committed abolitionist, however, Coates felt compelled to also build a neighborhood for the city’s black residents. It was called Perry Place, just east of where City Hall and the Jackson County courthouse are located downtown. For thirteen years he built Perry Place into a neighborhood exclusively for blacks. In 1870, he opened the development up to anyone.

Edward Bouton, who started his noted real estate career in Kansas City working on Janssen Place, and ended it by developing the iconic Roland Park neighborhood in Baltimore, was trying to insert racial restrictions in Roland Park by the mid-1890s, when JC Nichols was still a teenager.

#2 – J.C. Nichols did not create a blueprint for racial restrictions. It is true that Nichols was of a new generation of developers who were the first to take deed restrictions to new levels of detail. That innovation was to spell out in the deed documents the exact requirements for renewing or changing the deed restrictions for each homeowners association. The rules required that votes on all proposed changes were keyed to the original date of the documents. Changes could only be considered when proposed changes were submitted on the original signing date, five years before the next renewal period, which were only held every 5 years.

No doubt, it was intentionally as convoluted as it sounds. But Nichols’ interest in making changes difficult was clearly more about securing property as residential, requiring new construction adhere to certain rules regarding proximity to the street, size of house, etc., and to regulate the types of activities allowable on the property, i.e., no burning of trash, no commercial use, and so on. Nichols first development south of Brush Creek was one he took on from a developer who started but could not complete. Nichols inherited the name McCormick Place, from the original owner, and it stands in what today is the South Plaza neighborhood.

Nichols also inherited racial restrictions in the deed when he bought McCormick Place, another indication he did not invent them. But the McCormack Place project taught Nichols a lesson that was the real impetus for his interest in the new version of the deed restrictions. The McCormack Place restrictions were to last twenty years, and then retire if no one renewed them. No one did. So Nichols saw what became of McCormack Place after twenty years. Commercial uses moved in, many completely incompatible with the middle class homes Nichols had built. The property values had not been maintained. This was the impetus for Nichols’ deep dive into deed restriction reform.

In an average Nichols Company covenant and deed restriction document, there could easily be pages and pages of clauses, the clauses numbering in the dozens, and paragraphs by the hundreds detailing restrictions by every measure possible. But somewhere in the midst of all those clauses, there would be one of clear meaning and few words – “The property may not be owned or occupied by members of the Negro race.” Contrast that with the restrictions formed by another infamous Kansas City real estate firm of the post-war era – Kroh Brothers. Kroh Brothers was most notably the developer of much of Leawood, and other places in the growing areas of Johnson County after WWII. Their deed restrictions concerning race were quite detailed and lengthy. One example: “The “Declaration of Restrictions for Leawood Estates” filed by Kroh Bros. in 1945 prohibits ownership or occupancy “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.”

By the way, the Nichols Company did not have written restrictions in their deeds against Jews. Many people have said that there were, but to date, no one has provided me with a copy of a deed saying so, while countless people have shown me their deeds prohibiting “Negros.” But there does seem to have been an unwritten policy in the early days of the Nichols Company, a policy that said while the Nichols Company itself did not want to sell to Jews, they had no interest or intent in prohibiting original homeowners to sell their property to Jews, and I have met many second-buyer Jewish families who lived within the Country Club District.

Nichols conformity to deed restrictions in general was part of the requirement by the members of the National Real Estate Board, who started at the time that Nichols rose to prominence. Nichols and the other board members referred to themselves as developers of “high end residential.” In fact, by the 1930s, Nichols was trying to convince his fellow members of the National Real Estate Board that they were doing themselves and their communities a disservice by excluding Jews from their neighborhoods. Nichols made a plea to them at one of their national meetings, that in his experience in Kansas City, members of the Jewish community were intrinsically involved in the life of Kansas City, and as well-reasoned and thoughtful men, there was much they could contribute to their towns if they were allowed to enjoy the social status afforded non-Jews. The members of the National Real Estate Board would not listen.


I am not interested in being an apologist for J.C. Nichols or any other developers, financial institutions, businesses or other entities that made gains from the segregationist policies of the past. Saying they are men of their time provides context, but it serves as a poor excuse for men of their time, with the resources and opportunities provided them, to not rectify an obvious injustice that the country had recently fought so hard to end..

But if we are to fairly measure the decades of damages inflicted by willful bad intent, let us in Kansas City also fairly measure the damages for which Kansas City can truly be held responsible. The local work that must be done to address Kansas City’s responsibilities should be focused on our own injustices perpetrated against our own citizens. Kansas City didn’t invent the evil of housing segregation, it simply bears the responsibility for addressing the harm that the housing gap created.

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