Vital Conversations is a monthly discussion group that meets in the Northland of Kansas City. June and I have been regular members of that group for more than twelve years now, and we have enjoyed many profitable discussions there.
Some of My Best Friends are Black
At the March 13 Vital Conversations meeting, the 25 or so who attended discussed Tanner Colby’s book Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America (2012).
The meeting was a very helpful one, especially since there were four African-Americans present—including the venerable Alvin Brooks (b. 1932), a civil rights leader who is a former police officer and former city councilman of Kansas City.
The second part of Colby’s book is about racial segregation in housing—and in getting loans for purchasing a home. The situation in Kansas City is a prime example of segregation having been actively enforced by housing planning—and restrictions.
In particular, Colby writes about J.C. Nichols, whom Colby (no doubt rightfully) calls “the most influential real estate developer” in the U.S. during the first half of the twentieth century. Colby adds, “One could make the argument that he still holds that title today, despite being dead for sixty years.” (p. 82).
(Specifically, Nichols died in February 1950, several months before his 70th birthday.)
Nichols was the developer of Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, regarded as the nation’s first shopping center. After his death, he was memorialized with the impressive J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, just east of the Plaza, and the nearby street renamed the J.C. Nichols Parkway in 1952.
The King of Kings County
In addition to the County Club district and Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, a lasting legacy of J.C. Nichols is the development of Johnson County, Kansas, whose eastern border is just a mile west of the Plaza.
That story, which is told to some extent in Colby’s book, is the theme of the novel The King of Kings County (2005) by Whitney Terrell, a nephew by marriage to J.C. Nichols’ son Miller.
As Colby writes, the novel “tells the story of Kansas City’s blockbusting and suburbanization in a way that only a novel can: fictionalized, but brutally truthful” (p. 291).
(In the book, Nichols is called Bowen, the Plaza is Campanile, and Johnson County is Kings County, but for those who know the history of Kansas City, the identification is obvious.)
Adam Hamilton is the best-known Christian pastor in Johnson County, Kansas. He is pastor of the 20,000-member Church of the Resurrection, said to be the largest United Methodist Church in the U.S.
“Troost Avenue” is the title of the fifth chapter of Hamilton’s 2018 book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times.
As also explained in the books mentioned above, Hamilton writes, “The street in Kansas City that serves as the dividing line between predominantly white and black communities is Troost Avenue” (p. 57).
As some blacks sought to move west, Nichols and Bob Wood, an unscrupulous realtor, found ways to profit greatly by the development of Johnson County. They developed “restrictive covenants” that prevented African Americans from buying homes in many of the new, and white, communities.
Black homeowners and communities were also greatly disadvantaged by redlining and other means that meant financial loss.
I used to think that racial segregation was bad because of the deprivation resulting from being separate—and certainly repressive restrictions and lack of freedom are major problems.
But I have come to see that maybe the worst aspect of segregation has been the financial inequity entwined with forced separation.
Perhaps now the major goal is not integration (or equality) but rather thoroughgoing equity.