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Image credit above: Doors to the Johnson County Museum exhibit: “Red Lines: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation.” (Bill Tammeus | Flat Earth)
A 1954 all-electric model home sits just outside the entrance to the current – and formidable – Johnson County Museum. year-long exhibition on the devastating practice of redlining. In front of the house is a turquoise and white 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air.
“It was the ideal of the American dream,” says Andrew R. Gustafson, a museum staff member who curated the redlining exhibit, which shows in depressing detail how white supremacy behind discriminatory real estate practices and lending and government policies ensured that this model home and others like it were occupied only by white families.
“Suburbanization,” says Gustafson, “is one of the main stories in Johnson County and you can’t get to suburbanization without the story of redlining.”
His background in European history meant that Gustafson had to learn about redlining. It’s an old story to me, one that I wrote about decades ago. So it’s gratifying to see this history made available to everyone in the Kansas City area.
As a reporter for the Kansas City Star, I spent much of 1975 writing three long articles on the racial rotation between white and black in southeast Kansas City. In one I used public records to show that about 50 square miles of downtown – from Truman Road south to 75e Street and Troost Avenue east to Interstate 435 – had been demarcated by conventional mortgage lenders.
This meant that black families living in and near this area were unable to purchase homes with mortgages from savings and loans or banks. If they could buy, it was by using hard-to-get federally backed loans from the VA (Veterans Administration) or FHA (Federal Housing Administration) or by arranging private financing, often with the seller holding the loan. ‘mortgage. So many, if not most, black families have not been able to build family wealth through real estate like many white families could.
Carmaletta Williams, Executive Director of the Black Archives of Central America, an agency that helped mount the redlining exhibit, says one of the ironies of this racial fear-based system was that “the black community was not eager or even insistent on moving alongside white people. We had our own communities where we cared for each other and helped build a prosperous future for our families, especially our children.
As Williams puts it, “Racism in redlining and other acts…imposes unnecessary physical, emotional, and financial burdens on our communities.”
The drawing of red lines around certain areas of the city deemed unworthy of homeownership investment has damaged not only greater Kansas City, but also other communities across the country in countless ways.
This segregationist system worked exactly as it was designed, enriching not only white families in Johnson County, but also real estate developers such as JC Nichols using racial covenants that prevented white families from selling to blacks (or Jews). , Besides) .
“I talk about it as a two-part system,” says Gustafson. “You have a red line that keeps (colored) people in the city center and you have a red line that pushes other (white) populations away. And the VA and the FHA and the real estate industry are there to welcome people fleeing to suburban developments.
Fleeing, it must be said, often using government-funded interstate highways to commute between their jobs and their segregated neighborhoods.
I asked Gustafson what he wanted people to learn from the redlining exhibit.
“I think it’s important,” he says, “to leave realizing that our communities didn’t just develop as they are. There was an intention behind them. There were reasons why they grew the way they did – why certain people live in certain areas and why certain communities are built the way they are and why it continues. We realized as (museum) staff going through this story that the voices most affected by this story were never at the table when the policies were being created and even when the policies were being uncreated.
Carmaletta Williams has another idea of what people should take away from the show.
“Every white person…should walk away angry…angry that people who were in positions of power and authority did not fight and thwart JC Nichols’ efforts to bring his racist ideology to fruition before their eyes. They should be angry that so many people across the country have found in his “theory” a way to perpetuate racial segregation at the highest levels. They should be angry that because of his actions, they are now wearing white faces that represent these racist attitudes.
And, she adds, “Black people leaving the exhibit must feel some lamentation, loss, possibilities and realities of their lives. They should feel angry that their lives and the future they are building have been channeled and altered by powers beyond their control. They should be willing to absorb all that vacant and stolen power and use it to control their own destiny and reinstitute their ancestors’ dreams and their own. Red lines still exist both physically and emotionally. They must be erased.
Of course, if so many people weren’t – sometimes, no doubt, willfully – ignorant of redlining and related racist practices and policies, this kind of exposure would be pointless. But this ignorance makes the exhibition a must for residents of the region. And they have until January 7, 2023 to see it.
One of the most useful parts of the exhibit shows the many legacies this practice has left to the metropolitan area.
“There was a common misconception,” says Gustafson, “that the civil rights era has ended and everything should be equal after that. I hadn’t realized how well the system still worked.
For example, a posting titled “REDLINING’S (UN) INTENDED CONSEQUENCES” lists 15 outcomes that continue to harm highlighted areas, lower homeownership rates for African Americans, higher average temperatures, lower school performance, to more pollution, to a lower life expectancy. and more.
“All of these things relate to divestment,” Gustafson says.
And all of these lingering issues stem directly from policies and practices rooted in the idea that white people are superior to people of color and should live separately. But at least now, thanks to exhibits like “Redlining,” we can learn what our ancestors did and think about how we can do it differently today.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly of the Kansas City Star, writes the “faith mattersblog for The Star website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. Her latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at [email protected].