We should never remove J.C. Nichols’ name from that iconic fountain on the Country Club Plaza, contrary to some recent suggestions. But I suggest adding something nearby on Main Street.
That would be an equally iconic monument symbolizing the “Troost Wall.” It should take the form of a high masonry structure with statues representing white people on the west and black people confined to the east. Because for all the good things the great real estate developer and his son, Miller Nichols, accomplished, that is their major legacy. These real estate agents, and other members of that era’s National Association of Realtors, racially split this metropolitan area and many others.
What they did was my particular beat when I was a Kansas City Star reporter from 1958 to 1973. I testified as an expert witness in a 1977 U.S. District Court lawsuit, telling the court that the Kansas City School District had been gravely wounded by these real estate agents. From early in the last century into the 1960s, they confined Kansas City’s black family housing purchases almost entirely to areas east of Troost.
As the black population expanded at about the same rate as the white, this caused often complete racial turnover of neighborhoods from north to south, from 28th Street to 75th Street and beyond. White families there often demonstrated willingness to live with integration. The Real Estate Board’s policies focusing all black buying on a narrow corridor never allowed that to happen. With the turnover in housing, school student populations often changed from white to black at a rate of 25 percent per year.
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I learned about the ongoing disaster in 1960 from a small-time real estate broker, Harry Green. He clued me in about the Troost Wall, how real estate agents refused black purchases and mortgage bankers denied loans. Harry was what big-time real estate agents called a “blockbuster,” a broker negotiating sales east of Troost in the racially changing neighborhood.
Just terrible, the real estate hierarchy whispered, how those awful “blockbusters” were causing racial turnover of neighborhoods. Harry knew better. He knew that the real estate agents’ Troost Wall focused nearly all black house purchasing southward and eastward. Black people had nowhere else to go. Harry would never let me quote him in The Star, as that would have killed his business. He’s dead now and safe from all that.
Thank heavens that in 1963 Kansas City’s Real Estate Board caught on to the harm it was inflicting and supported the Fair Housing Ordinance, which narrowly passed in a public vote a year before a similar federal law.
I suppose we can excuse all those real estate agents because “everybody was doing it.” Most of us whites were racist then — including me in my stupid teen years. Excuse them and even the slaveholders of the South, who brought on the bloodiest war American soldiers have ever fought. All right, excuse them and even me.
But let’s not honor Confederate war leaders or a racist legacy in real estate without telling the other side of that story.
Charles Hammer of Shawnee writes a monthly column for The Star’s 913 newsmagazine.