Inside JCPRD: Three impactful moments in the REDLINED exhibit

The Johnson County Museum’s REDLINED exhibit occupies the special exhibit gallery through Jan. 7, 2023.

By The Johnson County Museum

The Johnson County Museum’s new special exhibition, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation, opened on Kansas Day (January 29) last month. The exhibit is extensive, chronicling more than 175 years of history related to redlining, its foundations, and its continuing legacies. Redlining – the system of disinvestment that went from a private prejudicial practice in the early 20th century to a federal policy during the Great Depression and was outlawed by the 1968 Civil Rights Act – shaped and continues to shape daily interactions, neighborhoods, cities, and the nation.

Some visitors have told us they’d like hours to fully read and immerse themselves in the exhibit content, including a mini art exhibit from the African American Artists Collective. We realize not all of our visitors will have that amount of time, so here are three high-impact moments from the exhibit that help tell the overall story on display.

Shaping Communities Through Exclusion

A deed restriction is a rule for how to use a property. Individual sellers, and later real estate developers, applied them to city and suburban lots to do things like prohibit chicken coops or require a minimum home square footage. These property rules – later transformed into a list of rules governing entire neighborhoods by Johnson County’s own real estate developer, J.C. Nichols – also controlled neighborhood exclusivity by setting minimum construction costs for homes, restricting to single-family residential structures, and prohibiting the purchase, lease, rent, or occupation by non-white individuals. Called racially restrictive covenants, these rules most often read “Sale to Negroes Prohibited” in the property deeds, although Jewish families were occasionally restricted, and elsewhere in the region and around the country racially restrictive covenants included Asian, Latino, and World War II refugee populations such as Turks, Armenians, and others.

The 1939 Residential Security Map for the Greater Kansas City Area shows the extent of the redlined areas in the region.

We may be aware of our own home’s deed, but we don’t often think of the larger context. Every home in the nation has a property deed. If your home had a racially restrictive covenant applied on it in the past, it is likely all the others in your neighborhood did as well. In the exhibit, there is a moment to consider a single property deed in a display case. When the viewer looks up from the case, they are presented with a massive list of neighborhoods. This is a partial list of suburban developments from Johnson, Jackson, Platte, and Clay counties that contained racially restrictive covenants. Each listing might have had four homes or 400 homes. If we consider Levittown outside of New York City, that development had 17,000 homes, and all were covered by racially restrictive covenants. The exhibit wall represents suburbs around one major metropolitan area – viewers are then asked to consider the number of restricted communities around the nation.

The national scale of the federal redlining policy is evident in this U.S. map. In the foreground, republished articles from the Kansas City CALL, a historic African American newspaper, show the local impacts of this federal system.

A National Story with Local Impacts

A second key moment in the REDLINED exhibit is viewing a national map containing examples of city-based Residential Security Maps, commonly referred to as Redlining maps. The federal government (through the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and later the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)) worked with local real estate agents, real estate developers, and mortgage companies to create a visualization of risk for cities across the nation. Green and blue were considered the least risky neighborhoods for the federal government to offer FHA mortgages (and therefore private mortgage lenders), while yellow and red presented risks in the forms of decreasing home values, dilapidated conditions, and substantial non-white residents. The prevailing assumption at the time was that the very presence of African Americans and other communities of color decreased home values and therefore made for risky investments. Not every person living in a redlined neighborhood was Black, but nearly every Black person living in urban America when these maps were made in the 1930s was living in a neighborhood that was redlined. Redlined neighborhoods were considered too risky to work with, so FHA mortgages and private mortgages were usually denied to the entire area.

The 1939 Residential Security Map for the Greater Kansas City Area shows the extent of the redlined areas in the region.

Redlining maps are a snapshot in time, visually representing assumptions and policies in action. Once an area was redlined, disinvestment began. FHA and private mortgages were funneled to white populations buying or building homes in suburban neighborhoods. By 1950, 51% of all homes purchased were done so with either an FHA or VA home loan. Because both programs required the exclusion of African Americans and other communities of color from obtaining their loans, the suburbs became an overwhelmingly white place while urban neighborhoods became increasingly segregated.

Redlining maps were made for more than 230 cities across the U.S. The 1939 Residential Security Map for the Greater Kansas City Area is on display in the exhibition. Blown up to a massive scale, it is possible to locate specific streets and city blocks on the map. Finding the color-coding applied to familiar neighborhoods or key landmarks in Kansas City might be surprising to visitors. The mapmakers also wrote descriptions for each neighborhood that explained why they were shaded a particular color. These are accessible through the digital project, Mapping Inequality.

Modern headlines about redlining and its legacies bring the topic to the present day.

The Continuing Legacies of Redlining

One common misconception is that these issues are in the past. It is easy to understand why that misconception exists. Racially restrictive covenants were deemed “unenforceable” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, and the last were legally filed in February 1950 (although they were filed in the Kansas City area as late as the early 1960s). The practice of redlining – both private and federal – was explicitly outlawed by the 1968 Civil Rights Act. And yet, as a massive wall of reprinted media headlines from 2020 and 2021 reveals, redlining and its legacies are still very present in society. Lending denial rates for communities of color remain higher than for white homebuyers. The assumption that Black and minority homebuyers present an increased risk remains strong, as evidenced by the onslaught of subprime mortgages loaned in the early 20th century (largely the cause of the 2008 economic recession).

This web-like wall graphic shows the complexity of the legacies of redlining in communities across the nation today.

In addition to ongoing inequities in home buying, there are numerous legacies impacting previously redlined communities. From food desserts, lack of bank access, and lack of healthcare access (grocery stores, banks, and hospitals often moved to suburbs) to the lack of trees, lack of public transportation access, and increase in economic hardship (due to continuing disinvestment), redlining’s legacies are present in communities across the nation. When confronted with modern-day headlines and ongoing legacies that impact lifestyle, quality of life, and even life expectancy, we hope the exhibit makes visitors consider this integral history, its impacts on our communities, and how we can work toward a better future for all.

The REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation exhibition is in the Johnson County Museum. The Museum is open Monday – Saturday, 9 am – 4:30 pm and is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children. The Museum offers quarterly Free Days, with the next happening on March 17. For more information about the exhibit, the programming slate being offered this year by the Johnson County Museum, and the program partnership spanning the entire Kansas City region in 2022, visit www.jcprd.com/Redlined.