Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, which was quite common for his era. There are some who would remove his name from buildings because he was, by today’s standards, a racist.
Others, including me, judge the man in his totality, in his historical context and forgive his flaws. If he were a virulent racist like Jefferson Davis, who as president of the Confederacy led the fight to maintain slavery, that would be another matter. But Thomas Jefferson was not. He certainly would not have fought for the cause.
The same standards should apply to J.C. Nichols, the legendary developer in metropolitan Kansas City, whose deed restrictions in his residential subdivisions constructed 50 to 75 years ago prohibited blacks, Jews and other minorities from buying his houses.
The Star’s Steve Kraske has suggested that because of his racist deed restrictions, Nichols’ moniker should be expunged from his namesake fountain, located in his crown jewel development, the Country Club Plaza.
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Jesse Clyde Nichols developed not only the Plaza but also most of northeast Johnson County and other quality neighborhoods such as Brookside. The Plaza was the first shopping center built for the automobile and the first outside a downtown. His residential subdivisions included a new concept called homes associations, which tightly regulated the upkeep on houses, thus maintaining property values. Those high standards were adopted by other developers throughout Johnson County and elsewhere. Nichols was way ahead of his time.
But when it came to attitudes toward minorities, particularly blacks, Nichols was not ahead of his time. He was exactly in his time. Nearly all large-scale developers in America during the 1940s and 1950s excluded blacks, and many also prohibited Jews from buying their homes. He is guilty for not realizing that seeking commercial success and maintaining property values are no excuse for bigotry. That more enlightened view would not become mainstream thought until much later in this country.
Nichols’ attitude toward Jews sometimes belied his deed restrictions. At one time, nearly all the upscale clothing stores and upscale jewelry stores on the Plaza were owned by Jews.
The experience of my parents, who are both Jewish, also suggested that Nichols’ heart was not as cold as his restrictions. In 1947, they were looking for a place to live in the suburbs with their two children. They toured four model homes in Prairie Village, offered for sale by Nichols. The price was $11,000, with $75 down and mortgage payments of $88 per month.
They were naïve. They knew nothing about covenants that would not allow them to purchase a home there. They put down their $75 for the model they wanted. Soon after, a salesman for Nichols called. As my 96-year-old mother tells the story today, he said only this: “You know you would be the only Jewish family living in Prairie Village, and your neighbors may not be comfortable with that.”
Despite the deed restrictions, no one from the Nichols Co. ever said they could not live there, and so they moved into their new home. When they started up a newspaper for Prairie Village, Nichols, who developed the Prairie Village Shopping Center, helped them for a time by covering the costs of mailing the newspaper to all the residents.
Ugly deed restrictions notwithstanding, Nichols treated my parents with kindness. I can only guess he probably never wavered from his bigotry toward African-Americans. At least, there are no indications otherwise. Nichols was flawed when it came to racial attitudes, but no more so than most of his peers in real estate development across the country in that era. There was rampant racism in housing then, and to a lesser extent, there still is today.
Like Jefferson, we must look at Nichols in his totality. When one considers the entire life and accomplishments of Nichols, as well as the era when he worked as a developer, it’s clear that the name of this visionary should remain on the prominent fountain, memorializing one of the most significant figures in Kansas City history.