In wake of Charlottesville, Prairie Village councilman says city has obligation to proactively address legacy of racism in NEJC

Eric Mikkelson. File photo.
Eric Mikkelson. File photo.

A Prairie Village city councilman says the violence inflicted by a white supremacist in Charlottesville this month serves as a reminder of the need to be proactive combating racist attitudes in northeast Johnson County, particularly given the area’s history of racial segregation.

Ward 3 councilman Eric Mikkelson told his council peers Monday that the incidents in Charlottesville had caused him to reflect on Prairie Village’s formative years, when developer J.C. Nichols platted new subdivisions with covenants that forbid black people from owning homes.

“I mention this uncomfortable truth not to impose guilt on anybody in this room, but we have a deep history in this city of racism — express, explicit racism,” Mikkelson said.

The legacy of 1950s and 60s housing policy designed to prevent racial integration continues to affect the make up of the city to this day, Mikkelson argued.

“That’s why we we don’t have a lot of diversity in Prairie Village — and that’s a problem,” he said.

Mikkelson said the lack of diversity in the city was a weakness, and that it was incumbent upon current city leaders to create a more inclusive, welcoming atmosphere.

“Because of our history, because of the reasons why we are so non-diverse, we as a governing body have a more proactive obligation to speak out,” he said. “It’s very intimidating when you’re not white, Christian, straight in Prairie Village — it just is.”

Last spring, Shawnee Mission East student Celia Hack documented the history of racial segregation in the area for a piece published by the Los Angeles Times. In it, she notes that, growing up in Fairway, she was almost wholly unaware of the policies that had led to the “exclusive environment” in which she was raised:

In 1948, covenants were officially declared unenforceable in a court of law by the Supreme Court. That didn’t stop the permanence Nichols had planned for, though. I know that because I can look at the demographics of Prairie Village, Mission Hills and Fairway and still see almost no integration…

The racially-divided living areas that J.C. Nichols introduced to Kansas City 100 years ago are still in place today. We live in them, and we need to talk about them.

As the city diversified in the 1910’s, Nichols began advertising to whites, subtly asking “Wouldn’t you and yours take pride in a home built in the Country Club District… where your children will get the benefit of an exclusive environment and the most desirable associations?” according to Colby.

That exclusive environment is where I grew up. To me, it was the land of Rhodadendron bushes in full bloom and lemonade stands sitting in vibrant green lawns in between those perfectly spaced, stately oaks. But those trees were ordered to be planted that way by the same person who ordered a group of people to live in a different part of town because of their skin color. I guess Nichols thought if he had power over where trees could be planted, he had power over where people could live.

And that’s what my 9-year-old self didn’t see or understand — the ugliness and hate of my neighborhood’s history. Of course, it was hard to see because it is rarely acknowledged or taught, despite the fact that its legacy persists to this day. All I can promise to do is educate myself and others, and never, ever let the ideology of racially segregated living rub off on me. I grew up surrounded by symmetry of trees and symmetry of race, and it forced me initially into ignorance. That’s why this needs to change.