Opinion Columns & Blogs

Steve Kraske: Kansas City should confront racist past and rename J.C. Nichols fountain

The parks department ranks the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain by Country Club Plaza as the most photographed of all its city fountains.
The parks department ranks the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain by Country Club Plaza as the most photographed of all its city fountains. File photo

All over the Deep South, leaders have been rethinking how they commemorate their past.

Just last month, workers in New Orleans removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Not two weeks ago in Arizona, a state not often tied to the War Between the States, black leaders lobbied the state’s Republican governor to remove six Confederate monuments. The reason? Those statues glorify the country’s racist past.

The murders of nine black people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church two years ago set off debates in South Carolina, where the Confederate battle flag was removed from the Capitol; in Baltimore, where Robert E. Lee Park was renamed; and in Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe removed Confederate flags from specially issued state license plates.

In Kansas City, we have work to do, too. As actions in other states demonstrate, the past matters, and how it’s enshrined can inflict pain today.

Our case in point: Kansas City’s memorials to J.C. Nichols, designer of our fabled Country Club Plaza, which in the 1920s became the first shopping center built outside a downtown area.

The right step: We should remove his name from the spectacular J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, which stands at the Plaza’s east entrance.

Without a doubt, Nichols was a visionary who shaped not only Kansas City’s prized retail district, but also many of its subdivisions. In developing Armour Hills, Brookside and Crestwood, as well as Fairway, Mission Hills and Prairie Village, Nichols “planned for permanence” by developing appealing neighborhoods with curving streets and statuary, along with parks, schools and churches.

Nichols was all about enduring legacies.

He was about something else, too. Like others of his time, he was a racist who went to great lengths to ensure that racial and religious minorities could not live in his neighborhoods. Nichols championed restrictive deeds that dictated the types of people who could move in.

He was far from the only developer who relied on those deeds during the 1930s and ’40s. But Nichols wielded them with particular effectiveness.

The impact is still felt in our dramatically segregated town. Even today, few minorities live in Nichols neighborhoods, and our city remains one of the most segregated in America. Nichols played a big role in that, but he’s still memorialized today via the city’s most glorious fountain and through the J.C. Nichols Parkway, among other tributes.

That should change. We should remove his name from the fountain that he helped buy and install because it’s the most visible Nichols commemoration.

This call comes at a time of heightened awareness of this country’s continuing struggles with race that have been all too apparent in recent years. We aren’t getting there, folks. That’s obvious now.

It’s time to pick up the pace, and this step in Kansas City would be a constructive one in a city situated in a one-time slave state.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it well: “We must always remember our history and learn from it,” he wrote. “But that doesn’t mean we must valorize the ugliest chapters.” Great nations, he said, must “confront the sins of the past and evolve to meet the demands of a changing world.

“If we don’t want to be forever held back by our crushing history of institutional racism, it’s time to relegate these monuments to their proper place.”