Was Johnson County Redlined?

The Johnson County Museum is currently displaying a special exhibit created in-house titled, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation. At the beginning of tours, many visitors share with us their belief that Johnson County was redlined. Historically speaking, this was not true. Read on to learn more about Johnson County’s status.

In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, the federal government launched to new home mortgage programs to help many Americans attain homeownership. These federal programs created maps of more than 230 American cities in which every neighborhood was described and codified in one of four colors. These maps were called Residential Security Maps and they gauged the perceived investment risk in each neighborhood. Today, these maps are often referred to as “redlining maps.” Green signified the best investment (meaning a home would likely maintain or gain in value over the life of a mortgage loan), blue was second tier, and yellow signified the presence of some risk that the home might lose value.

The federal government produced this Residential Security Map for the Greater Kansas City Area in 1939. Called a redlining map, it represents levels of investment risk at the neighborhood level. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and fully explorable through the Mapping Inequality online history project.

The Meaning of Redlining

Redlined neighborhoods, the lowest grade, had older, smaller homes, often in disrepair, mixed zoning or uses (industrial next to residential, for example), as well as the presence of people of color. According to the logic of the real estate industry in the early 20th century, African Americans and other people of color devalued their property and the properties throughout the neighborhoods in which they lived. This assumption had no basis in fact but was widely held at the time and promoted by the emerging real estate industry.

Some historians talk about the act of redlining a neighborhood, like those visible in downtown Kansas City, as a form of containment. The federal government and private lending institutions deemed redlined areas as unworthy of mortgage loans and bad investment risks. These areas and the Black, Latino, and other communities of color who lived in them were then disinvested in for decades, meaning there was little to no private or government investment. It would be extremely difficult to secure a home mortgage loan from the FHA, VA, or a private bank in these neighborhoods, so it was hard to buy a home (read more about the FHA’s policies in this past JoCoHistory Blog post: https://jocohistory.wordpress.com/2022/04/28/the-fha-and-suburbia/).

This zoomed in view of the 1939 redlining map for the Greater Kansas City Area shows Johnson County, Kansas. Mostly farmland in 1939, the few new suburban neighborhoods developed by that time were greenlined. Map courtesy NARA.

Johnson County’s Status

Looking at the redlining map for the Greater Kansas City area that was made in 1939, you can see that in the lower left corner, Johnson County had no redlined neighborhoods. The areas that were yellowlined were older streetcar suburb neighborhoods with smaller homes. Had Olathe been visible on the map, it is likely that some of its downtown would have been redlined, and so would have the historic African American neighborhood of Fairview. But as represented in 1939, most of Johnson County was undeveloped farmland (unshaded), and the portions that had been developed recently as suburban subdivisions were often greenlined. These areas included the J.C. Nichols developments of Mission Hills and Fairway.

Real estate developers like J.C. Nichols (Country Club District, Prairie Village, etc.), the Kroh Bros. (Leawood), Charles Vawter (Roeland Park), and many others placed racially restrictive covenants on new suburban neighborhoods that prohibited the purchase of homes by African Americans and other people of color. Greenlining typically meant that the area had racially restrictive covenants and other protective, exclusive measures in place, like homes associations (HOAs today) and a long list of property restrictions (rules for how to/how not to use your property). With these barriers present, those living in redlined neighborhoods often had nowhere else to move even if they could afford a new home (read more about how J.C. Nichols transformed suburb building process in this past JoCoHistory Blog post: https://jocohistory.wordpress.com/2020/07/29/j-c-nichols-johnson-county/). 

American Dream for Some

People who say Johnson County was redlined probably mean that it was a heavily restricted suburban community, and this was true. One historian found that 148 of 154 subdivisions built by 1947 were racially restricted. That means that 96% of suburban houses in 1947 in Johnson County were open only to white purchasers. This was the most restricted community in the metro by some 20 percentage points. There were hundreds of subdivisions throughout the Kansas City area containing tens of thousands of homes that were racially restricted – and that represents only one metro area in the U.S. Practically every city regardless of its size had new suburbs under construction between 1910 and 1950.

This map shows the 148 of 154 suburban subdivisions in Johnson County, Kansas that were racially restricted in 1950. Areas shaded in yellow were only open to white homebuyers due to racially restrictive covenants on the property. Map courtesy Jerry Slingsby, “Racial Covenants in Kansas City,” MA Thesis (University of Kansas, 198), page 120.

The system of redlining was a two-part system. On the one hand, urban neighborhoods and communities of color were redlined, which led to the containment of populations of color and disinvestment in those areas by various levels of government and private industry. On the other hand, suburban neighborhoods that were racially restricted were greenlined and open only for white homebuyers. This meant that the emerging mid-century idea of the “American Dream” and homeownership was really only open to some.

To learn more about redlining and its implications for both suburban, greenlined areas and urban, redlined areas, visit the Johnson County Museum’s special exhibit, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation. This exhibit is included in Museum admission and open Monday through Saturday, 9am – 4:30pm through January 7, 2023. Learn more and plan your visit: www.jcrpd.com/Redlined.

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De Soto Library: Past, Present, Future

The De Soto Library, at 33145 W. 83rd St., is one of three small community branches on the outskirts of the Johnson County Library system, along with Edgerton and Spring Hill. These branches are seen as vital anchors and gathering spots, integral to the fabric and character of their close-knit towns. 

For Lori Ross, a lifelong De Soto resident and system-wide materials handling clerk with Johnson County Library, the branch is an institution and a wonderful resource for northwest Johnson County, west of Shawnee and Lenexa. 

“It’s a good staple of the community,” Ross said. “It’s very much a connection to the world.” 

For Branch Manager Christian Madrigal, De Soto is special because it’s a small branch where many patrons know each other and get to know the staff, talking about favorite books and developing positive relationships. 

Especially before the pandemic, many residents used the branch for access to the entire Johnson County Library collection. In 2019, the branch had 1,735 card holders and a collection of 15,373 materials. It had 30,000 visits that year and a circulation of 37,000 items.  

“I think the community really utilized the Holds system there,” Madrigal said. “Lots of people dropped in to use computers for job searching and to stay connected. We still have two regulars who come in every day to get the newspaper and stay current.”  

For years, the branch had an active book club whose members hope to resume meeting soon. It remains a popular hub for teens, families and retirees who check out materials and rely on the Library Wi-Fi. 

The branch has a storied history, and Lori Ross has an especially meaningful connection to its origins. Her great-grandmother, Edna Ross, started the first De Soto lending library in the mid-1950s, with books on shelves in the family’s store, Ross Electric and Plumbing Shop, on the town’s main street. That lending library lasted until Johnson County Library started providing a weekly bookmobile stop in 1957. By 1966, the bookmobile was so popular that it was parked in town and manned by volunteers.  

Edna C. Ross at the De Soto self-service library. JoCo History

In 1967, the prominent Coker family built a 1,200-square-foot Library at a convenient downtown location, next to the Post Office, near an elementary school, and just down the street from the Ross family store. The original facility, which opened in October 1967, had 3,000 titles and was leased by Johnson County Library.  

De Soto continued to grow in population. By the early 1980s, it was clear the community needed a larger Library. A 3,776-square-foot building was constructed on the same site and opened in June 1982. That’s the Library that Lori Ross visited almost daily as a schoolchild for books and to hang out with friends. This year marks its 40th anniversary. 

The current De Soto Library Branch.

Ross and her mother Kathy now run the De Soto Historical Society on the upper floor of the old Ross family store, a block from the Library. The proximity is wonderful; people often visit the Historical Society and then head to the Library just as it opens. 

Madrigal is excited that Johnson County Library is embarking on a renewal study for its community branches and is holding Listening Sessions to get patron suggestions. Working with Clark & Enersen architects, staff is looking at how to maximize the building for programs, possibly using temporary partitions to create meeting spaces. Other requests are to enhance the Spanish language collection, offer MakerSpace software and expand Library hours. 

Madrigal is optimistic about the future, with the renewal study serving as a roadmap. It will be, he says, “an opportunity to provide or extend Library services that can match or be taken into consideration with our staff and patron feedback.” 

-Lynn Horsley, Freelance writer for Johnson County Library

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The Merriam Bomber Crash of 1944

In July 1944, at the height of World War II, the unthinkable happened in Merriam, Kansas. After flying unusually low, a B-24J “Liberator” Bomber crashed into a neighborhood of homes. Three people aboard the bomber were killed. Six aboard and on the ground were injured, four homes were heavily damaged, and a fifth house was destroyed. What caused the plane to crash? And why was it flying over Johnson County in the first place?

The bomber, which left Lincoln Army Air Field in Lincoln, Nebraska on July 26, 1944, was under the command of and piloted by 2nd Lt. Kenneth H. Keech, a 1940 graduate of Shawnee Mission Rural High School. Keech and his crew of five were preparing to go to Europe to fight during World War II. The July 26th flight was to be their last test run – an opportunity to calibrate the bomber’s compass. The Army Air Force had instructed the crew to fly at 7,000 feet and within 100 miles of the Air Field.

1 A B-24 “Liberty” Bomber in flight. Courtesy Library of Congress.
A B-24 “Liberty” Bomber in flight. Courtesy Library of Congress.

During the flight, the compass did not operate properly and the flight crew found themselves near Kansas City, Kansas. Keech suggested they “buzz” his in-laws and wife in Merriam, Kansas. Buzzing was the act of flying out of one’s way to flyover a home or other location. Buzzing was often done at high speeds, low altitudes, and with some aerobatics to impress family and friends.

Spectators on the ground noted a plane flying no higher than 100 feet, and another said it nearly touched the treetops. There were no aerobatics or high speeds involved, however. In fact, it may have been low speed that brought the plane down. The B-24 Liberator was large with four propeller engines and was known for being a clunky flight at low altitudes and low speeds. As the airborne behemoth practically scraped the tips of the houses’ roofs below, the pilot was unable to get the plane to ascend. Witnesses noted that the plane clipped a roof peak or tree.

2 Mrs. James Bell of Shawnee snapped this image of the bomber piloted by Lt. Keech just before it crashed in Merriam, Kansas. Image was published in an unknown newspaper.
Mrs. James Bell of Shawnee snapped this image of the bomber piloted by Lt. Keech just before it crashed in Merriam, Kansas. Image was published in an unknown newspaper.

Keech himself later recalled that the plane felt like a car “sliding on ice.” Unable to fly straight, Keech eventually saw nothing but air. Keech later recounted that he thought the plane was disintegrating in the air.

According to the Johnson County Herald, “frantic spectators had watched the plane skimming over housetops and trees for some time before the crash. The Merriam telephone exchange was flooded with calls of complaints.” One spectator remembered seeing the plane disappear behind trees, then a giant ball of black smoke rising into the air. Robert Gorham, a local teen, climbed a tree to see the plane better. When it crashed, the plane destroyed his bicycle, which he had parked under the tree.

When the smoke cleared, a path of wreckage was evident. Homes in various levels of demolition, and several on fire. The plane had broken up, with the fuselage coming to stop between two houses. The propellers had flown off and fallen into homes.

3 One of the homes damaged in Merriam. The house is missing its peak. This photo was taken by a military reconnaissance team sent to clean up the crash site.
One of the homes damaged in Merriam. The house is missing its peak. This photo was taken by a military reconnaissance team sent to clean up the crash site.

The first house struck was the Bernadel home at 5511 Loomis (Antioch today), which had the peak of its roof shorn off. No one was harmed there because the Bernadels had gone to town. Across the street lived the pilot’s in-laws, the Skeens, and his wife, Wilma Keech. Like the Bernadels, none of the residents were home when plane came buzzing. A handful of other homes were damaged, including the Cates home where much of the wreckage could be found. The Gray home at 5418 Slater was entirely engulfed in flames. Trees, telephone poles, and electrical lines in the vicinity were knocked over.

Some residents on the ground were injured in the crash. A.I. Lang of 5421 Slater was hit by debris and went into a state of shock. Another resident, Mary Rice of 6522 Woodlea, was thrown from a chair in her home and lacerated her hip. Mrs. Gray was severely burned when the plane came to a rest against her home at 5418 Slater. The mother of three escaped her home through a broken window before it was completely engulfed in flames. Luckily her two young children were playing in a neighbor’s yard and were uninjured in the accident.

Illustration of the path the crashing bomber took in Merriam. This was originally published in the Kansas City Times newspaper.
Illustration of the path the crashing bomber took in Merriam. This was originally published in the Kansas City Times newspaper.

Following the crash, residents of the neighborhood helped pull the living clear of the plane’s wreckage, while volunteer firefighters responded to the fires and an ambulance attended to three crew members injured on the ground. The military dispatched a crew from the Olathe Naval Air Station to secure the perimeter and retrieve what was left of the fuselage and all of the plane components scattered among yards, gardens, homes, and driveways. Ultimately, three of the six crew members died in the accident. Keech was thrown from the cockpit through a hole that was torn in the bomber’s side. Incredibly, the pilot survived to tell his tale.

In his reports, the Keech blamed the accident on medical treatments he received for severe tonsillitis during the week prior the flight. Keech claimed sulfadiazine – the drug he was treated with daily – could have disoriented him. While it is true that the Army Air Forces prohibited pilots from flying for five days after their last dose of sulfa drugs and that side effects included disorientation and depth perception issues, medical officials and military experts instead cited pilot error, negligence, and flying at dangerously low altitudes as the major causes of the crash. The Johnson County Herald opined the crash was the “result of recklessness and damn foolishness in the piloting of a plane.”

5 Photo of the historic plaque in Merriam marking the location of the crash. Johnson County Museum.
Photo of the historic plaque in Merriam marking the location of the crash. Johnson County Museum.

On the 50th anniversary of the accident, on July 26, 1994, the Journal Herald newspaper caught up with Keech. He told how he thought about the accident often – it haunted him – and how he had struggled to come to terms with what we would call “survivor’s guilt” today. For years, Keech had experienced “painful flashbacks.” In the crash, his left arm had been so severely burned that it was later amputated. He had received no training for surviving with just one arm and had struggled mentally and physically. But Keech counted himself lucky. He survived, as did two of the other crew members, 2nd Lt. Guy L. McMackin and Sgt. Charles E. Edwards, who had been critically burned.

In the crash had perished 2nd Lt. James B. Davis of Oklahoma City, OK; Capt. Calvin H. Somers of Brownsville, PA; and Capt. E.G. Vellone of Syracuse, NY. Kenneth Keech died in 2004. The accident has been commemorated in Merriam with a historic plaque and bench in 2014. It is located on Antioch, south of the intersection with 55th Terrace on the west side of the street.

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Slavery in the Free State

Johnson County runs counter to the narrative of Kansas as a unanimously anti-slavery state and was a vital voice in pro-slavery activism in the 1850s. Johnson County’s namesake, Reverend Thomas Johnson, helped legalize slavery in Kansas Territory in 1855, after having illegally enslaved people in the Shawnee Mission area since the 1830s. He served as president over what is now commonly referred to as “The Bogus Legislature” because it was fraudulently elected by pro-slavery Missourians crossing the border to cast illegal ballots. After legalizing slavery, the legislature passed “An Act to Punish Offenses Against Slave Property” which called for the death penalty for any free person who helped enslaved people escape from, or revolt against, their enslavers.

Sec. 5. If any person shall aid or assist in enticing, decoying, or persuading, or carrying away or sending out of this Territory, any slave belonging to another, with intent to procure or effect the freedom of such slave, or with intent to deprive the owner thereof of the services of such slave, he shall be adjudged guilty of Grand Larceny, and on conviction thereof, shall suffer death, or be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than ten years.
Section 5 of “An Act to Punish Offenses Against Slave Property.” Kansas Memory

Under this statute, expressing certain anti-slavery beliefs became a felony, punishable by “imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.” This, being a blatant violation of the first amendment, contributed to the outrage among the free state population. However, no one was ever prosecuted for the crimes laid out in this section, and the act was repealed in October of 1857 with the first elected free-state legislature.

Most enslavers on the Kansas-Missouri border operated on a small scale, enslaving fewer than twenty people. Despite operating on a small scale, enslavers in this region still enjoyed a heightened status, holding a disproportionate amount of wealth and political power. On the other hand, small-scale slaveholding presented extra hazards for the enslaved people. Those enslaved on smaller holdings were subjected to longer work hours and an increased likelihood of experiencing physical or sexual violence. They also struggled to form or access a community of their peers. Each enslaved community was an important source of physical and psychological support. To counter familial disruption caused by the slave trade and high mortality rates, enslaved people were known to informally adopt children who needed caretakers. When a community member was at risk of being punished due to decreased working speed, especially when this decrease was due to illness or pregnancy, their peers might secretly take on some of their work in an effort to protect them. The community preserved and created cultural practices that helped enslaved people cope with the violence and exploitation endemic to their condition.  The enslaved community also planned and executed acts of resistance. Those who lacked consistent access to a supportive community were particularly vulnerable.

Small slave holdings also created separation between married couples. Most marriages between enslaved people in this region were “abroad,” meaning the husband was enslaved by a different person than the wife. Typically, the husband would get permission to spend Saturday evening and Sunday at his wife’s residence, though this privilege was always under threat of being revoked. The practice of “hiring out”—in which an enslaver contracted out the labor of an enslaved person to a third party— created familial and communal separations as well. But both arrangements also contributed to the silver lining of small-scale slaveholding for enslaved people: increased mobility. Enslaved people’s knowledge of the surrounding area, including knowledge of Kansas settlements with abolitionist leanings, aided enslaved people in their attempts to reach freedom.


The end of slavery in Kansas came with its admission to the union as a free state in 1861. By this time, Thomas Johnson and most other Kansas enslavers had already retreated to Missouri. However, Kansas’s proximity to Missouri gave the state a role to play in the story of emancipation throughout the Civil War. Just as pro-slavery activists had feared, Kansas becoming a free state emboldened enslaved Missourians, who had already been fleeing across the state line for years. Enslaved people, in this region and across the country, took advantage of the wartime chaos to make their bids for freedom, wherever they might find it.

Population and Origins 1860
A map of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area measuring population density of European-American settlers circa 1860. Freedom’s Frontier

The mobility that characterized this region continued to be vital after the end of the war. Slavery was abolished with the intent that freed people would stay with those who had enslaved them, now as paid employees. This was problematic for several reasons, the most pressing of which being that it called for freed people to remain economically dependent on those who had enacted endless amounts of physical, sexual, and psychological violence against them. It expected them to stay with people who may have sold away their loved ones, with people whose callousness and greed made the child mortality rate for enslaved children double that of their non-enslaved counterparts. Former enslavers constructed systems of debt-peonage that aimed to continue their exploitation, despite the abolishment of slavery. Under these circumstances, having the resources to leave former enslavers could make all the difference.

 Between 1860 and 1870, Missouri’s western counties lost a fourth of their Black population. Most of those coming to Kansas were seeking homesteading farmland, and by the 1880s Johnson County had more than 900 Black residents. Some, like Olathe small business owner David Page, were able to find success despite a former status of enslavement. While migrating to Kansas may have spared a freed person the common and disheartening fate of being trapped with their former enslaver, it was not a guarantee of economic prosperity. Freed people who managed to escape the agricultural industry still risked being pushed into occupations that paid subsistence wages. The majority of Black Johnson Countians during this era worked in the service industry. Free state views did not directly translate into a desire to treat Black people as equals. The woefully underfunded Freedmen’s Bureau was not equipped to meet the needs of the newly freed population. The threat of racial violence was omnipresent. Freed people looking to heal from the brutality of slavery and create a new life for themselves found no shortage of obstacles stacked in their way.

Standing, left to right: Lora Page Moore and Grace Page Stuart; Seated, left to right: David Page and Mariah Cartwright. Johnson County Museum

Information Wanted  

Under slavery, the threat of being separated from loved ones was pervasive and all-consuming. Enslaved people could be sold, or even given away as gifts for any reason. This was typically done without warning, because the threat of sale was one of the most common reasons enslaved people cited for attempting to run away. Enslaved people were at the mercy of their enslavers– many of whom claimed to believe separating enslaved families was no different than separating families of livestock. Even enslavers who expressed distaste at the idea of separating loved ones often chose their economic interests over any moral concerns. With the end of the Civil War came new hope for those who had lost family to the domestic slave trade. Freed people began to look for their missing loved ones, and newspaper advertisements became a common way to search for information. The following is one such ad from Johnson County Resident Braxton Mitchell, published in 1902, thirty-seven years after end of the civil war:

Do You Know them?
I desire to find my relatives. I left my mother in Sewal, Va. I was sold from her in slavery. Her name was Easter Mitchell, my father belonged to another white man by the name of Barley Brockston, which was his name. I have some brothers but cannot remember but two, Peter Mitchell, being the oldest, Alexander next. Have several sisters but cannot remember but two, Lucinda, the oldest and Margaret Mitchell. The old white man's name was Dickie Mitchell. He had thirteen children, all boys except two. Any information will be gladly received by
Springhill, Johnson Co,
Richmond Planet

Braxton’s inability to recollect all his siblings by name alludes to the effects of familial disruption and reproductive exploitation on the enslaved family. This next advertisement, placed by Lawrence resident Cynthia Scruggs in 1878 gives us a personal glimpse into the legacy of Reverend Thomas Johnson.

Looking for the Children.
Aunt Cynthia Scruggs, formerly a slave of Nathaniel Scruggs, of Jackson county, Mo., now lives in this city. She had three daughters, named respectively, the oldest, Francis Ann, a slave of Henry Chick; and Virgin Mary and Tamantha Jane, slaves of Rev. Thomas Johnson, now decesed. These children were all sold before the war, and have gone the old lady knows not whither. She is very anxious to find out something concerning them, and takes this means of making her wishes public. We hope our brethren of the press will pass this round, and if anybody knows where the girls - grown up women by this time - are, they will do a kindness to the mother by publishing the fact, or sending to her at Lawrence, Kansas.
The Daily Kansas Tribune

Cynthia Scruggs knew the name of the man who had taken her children from her. She even knew that he was dead— but she, and others like her, typically had no way to know whether their own absent loved ones were still alive. Cynthia’s attempt to find her daughters after over seventeen years of separation shows not only her love, but also her ability to maintain some degree of hope in the face of lifelong trauma. Regrettably, the dismemberment of the domestic slave trade was often too extensive to be mitigated by the actions of individuals. It can be assumed that the vast majority of these ads, and the other attempts freed people made to reunite, were unsuccessful. These advertisements created a record of what was taken from the enslaved. They reasserted freed people’s humanity and the value of their familial bonds. But most of the time, they did not serve their original purpose. Offices of the Freedmen’s Bureau were overwhelmed with letters from people seeking information about their loved ones. There was clearly a demand for more government resources to be allocated to the task of reuniting families, but those resources were never provided. Some newspapers allowed freed people to place these ads for free, but the success of a newspaper ad was reliant upon extraordinary luck.  


Slavery, while universally abhorrent, varied in the characteristics of its brutality across region, time period, and each individual’s unique circumstances. The story of emancipation on the Kansas-Missouri border is quite different from the experiences of those in Texas, as described in Juneteenth’s origin story. It is important not to fixate solely on that one image of a Union General in Galveston, standing on a balcony and announcing to the crowd below that the government had decided to grant them freedom. It is equally important not to think only of those, like the individuals who fled to Kansas, who were able to free themselves. The end of slavery was not one announcement, or one decision to run. It exists in countless different versions, in the testimonies recorded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, in oral histories, in written accounts.

The abolishment of slavery was followed by a flood of weddings in the Black community. To fully appreciate what that fact means, we must first think about the reality of marriage under slavery– that it came with no legal protection or acknowledgement and was subject to the enslaver’s will alone. We must think about those who were married off against their will, of those who risked punishment by continuing to see the partner of their choosing against their enslaver’s wishes, of those loving couples who did get permission to marry and then lived with the fear that their partner could be taken away at any moment. After doing so, we can return to the initial statement with a deeper understanding. The abolishment of slavery was followed by a flood of marriages in the Black community. A marriage certificate documented and symbolically legitimized the bonds between freed people, who previously lived with constant uncertainty. In appreciating their burdens, we appreciate the complex emotions they must have felt when those burdens finally began to be lifted.

Author’s Note: Works Consulted and Further Reading

-Leah P., Johnson County Library

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Long Live the King Louie West

In the five years since the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center opened its doors on June 8, 2017, the building has been filled with theatre productions, museum exhibitions, countless classes and camps, community events. But the building had another life before becoming the cultural hub for Johnson County. As we prepare to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, we wanted to take time to look back on the history of the iconic building that stands at 8788 Metcalf Avenue in its former life: the history of King Louie West.

The King Louie West was a cultural hub in its own right. The original building included 32 wooden lanes lacquered and ready for the public to enjoy. The Johnson County Herald called the bowling alley “one of the largest and most elaborate in the Greater Kansas City area.” Home to a bowling alley, billiards hall, and – eventually – an ice-skating rink, the King Louie West was the site of many treasured memories for thousands of people from Johnson County and the surrounding areas.

Vic and Morris Lerner are responsible for opening the King Louie West Lanes bowling alley in February 1959. The Polish immigrant brothers’ development was closely connected to the American Dream. The Lerners wagered suburban families would see bowling as fun for the whole family. Their bet paid off. The King Louie West quickly became a regional draw, enticing thousands of families moving to the rapidly growing suburban areas of Johnson County and neighboring areas to its modern building.

Conceptual drawings for the King Louie bowling alley (1959). The King Louie West operated for nearly 50 years, closing in 2009 as AMF Bowling.

In 1964, the Lerners opened a major addition to the building: the Ice Chateau. Architect Manual Morris drew inspiration from the Googie form of modern architecture that was characterized by Space Age designs such as dramatic curves, geometric shapes, and angles. The addition made the King Louie West building an architectural icon. The undulating roofline line facing Metcalf, the angular stone façade, and the gigantic wooden glulam beams inside (supporting a massive building with no interior support columns) demonstrated the influence of modern architecture on the King Louie West. Perhaps nothing better represents the Space Age designs than the stone and metal spire that pierced the sky near the building’s main entrance. The Lerners chose the Googie Style because it was eye catching, modern, and downright cool.

Wooden glulam beams soaring over the 1954 All-Electric House in the Johnson County Museum (Photo courtesy of Bob Greenspan Photography).

For 50 years, this building was a special place for coworkers, social organizations, leagues and teams, groups of friends, and families to celebrate, mark milestones, and have fun. As Johnson County continued to expand to the south and west, business at the King Louie West (which was by then owned by AMF) began to decline. In 2009, the King Louie West closed its doors, but not for good.

In 2011, the Johnson County Commission purchased the King Louie West building with the vision of creating a county heritage center. The Johnson County Museum, which needed a larger and safer building to store and share the history of the county, would help anchor the building. Renovations began in 2015. With so much community history reverberating throughout the building, the project team took great pains to ensure that the unique modern architectural features of the King Louie West remained.

Today, visitors can see subtle but clever nods to the building’s history. Design themes for various sections of the building pay homage to their original use. Because the Black Box Theater and the event rental spaces occupy the old bowling alley, for example, their theme is taken from the lines and triangles on a bowling lane. The motif for the Museum, which sits on the floor of the old ice rink, has white slashes on a gray background, imitating the marks of skates on ice. The fine art and dance classrooms today are marked with graphics that reflect the rooms’ original use: billiards and game rooms. Even the color choices in the building are inspired by color palettes used in modern design.  [Photos 6 and 8]

Conceptual drawings for the Arts & Heritage Center by SFS Architecture.

Like the design, the use of the building mimics the original intent Vic and Morris Lerner had for the building they opened 63 years ago. Like the King Louie West, the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center is a place for Johnson Countians of all ages to experience joy and make memories. Gone are the bowling alley, billiards tables, and the ice rink, yes; but here instead is a county museum, community theater, event spaces, and arts and cultural classrooms for young and old. Today, the iconic King Louie West remains building is one of the most defining structures in Johnson County, both for the architecture and for the incredible experiences offered inside of it.

The Arts & Heritage Center as it appears today (Photo courtesy of SFS).

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The Kansas City Institute of Chinese Language & Culture

If you’ve been around local Chinese New Year celebrations, you’ve probably encountered students from The Kansas City Institute of Chinese Language & Culture either performing traditional folk dances or waiting to best competitors in a variety of Chinese board games.

A student playing Wei Qi, a traditional Chinese board game in 2011. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

The Kansas City Institute of Chinese Language & Culture was founded in 1998 by local Chinese immigrants who sought to ensure their children felt a connection to their Chinese heritage through language and cultural practices. From their group, they asked Lihui Xiong, who immigrated to Kansas City from Changchun, China with her husband and son in 1992, to organize the classes because of her degree in Chinese Classical Literature from Jilin University. Xiong first invited children to her house to learn the language in an informal setting, but interest in language classes exceeded her household’s capacity so a school was formed by Xiong with Xuelin Li, Yuai Li, Zhuang Li, Ji Ji, et al using donated space from a church in Mission. The first day had about 25 children, but by the end of the second semester, over 50 children were learning Mandarin. The school has moved multiple times over the past 20+ years as it has steadily expanded its offerings and student body. The school’s longest tenure was at the Indian Creek Community Church from 2009 to 2019. The pastor at the time often took mission trips to China so the school helped teach church participants some of the language and culture they would encounter on their trip in exchange for using the space.

Students of the Chinese school in the class taught by Lihui Xiong. JoCo History

One of the most memorable events happened in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Chinese women’s soccer team was scheduled to play an international tournament in Chicago in September 2001. Because of the terrorist attacks, the games were canceled, but the team could not fly home as so many flights were grounded during that time. They were able to come to Kansas City and spent some time interacting with the students, presenting about their lives in China, assisting classes with their language practice, and demonstrating their world class soccer skills.

After many years at the Indian Creek Community Church, and a brief time at the KU Edwards campus pre-pandemic, they currently hold classes at Mid-America Nazarene University on Sunday afternoons. After moving to online classes during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the school now offers hybrid classes that reach a wide international audience online. They are the largest Chinese language school in the Kansas City metro area, and in 2020 joined the Chinese School Association in the United States.  The move to online has also increased their access to professional development opportunities for their instructors to attend conferences and consult with professionals in China about teaching techniques and classroom management.

A 2014 teacher training with Dr. Sheree Willis from the University of Kansas. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

The school offers Chinese language and cultural classes for students aging from kindergarten through high school. They teach simplified Chinese characters based on the Latin alphabet and Pinyin romanization system. In addition to practicing reading, writing, and speaking Chinese, the school teaches traditional Chinese cultural elements such as folk dance, ink painting, board games, and more. Students learn about traditional Chinese holidays such as Chinese New Year and the traditional celebrations including food, dress, and activities in different parts of China.

A classroom celebrating Chinese New Year in 2011. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

While the school is mostly comprised of ethnic Chinese heritage students, they also teach children interested in learning the language from other cultures. Many of the students who graduate from the program return to volunteer with younger classes, helping the younger students to develop their language skills. The program also has a symbiotic relationship with Blue Valley School District’s Chinese immersion program that began in 2017. Both teachers and students have come from the Blue Valley program. This provides the language school with experienced classroom professionals to teach classes and gives children enrolled in the immersion program supplemental practice for their language skills.

Recent graduates of the program help younger students with their language skills. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

The school has contributed to the cultural diversity of the Kansas City metro area for the past 24 years, and with over 160 students currently attending, there’s no doubt they will continue to do so for many more years in the future.

-Amanda Wahlmeier, Johnson County Library

A special thanks to Lihui Xiong for speaking with me about the Institute. To learn more about her story, read this interview conducted by the Johnson County Museum in 2009.

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The FHA and Suburbia

In 1934, the Roosevelt Administration launched the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The agency insures mortgages made by private lenders, protecting those lenders against losses. The agency was designed to promote home ownership during the Great Depression. Private lenders, including suburban developers here in this region, helped inform the policies the FHA would use to guide its lending, transforming private practices of exclusion into the federal policy of redlining. While suburban communities around cities across the nation were built up through the FHA, people of color and those living in integrated areas were overwhelmingly denied access to FHA programs. The FHA’s lending practices changed with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, but the legacies of the policy continue to shape realities today. The history of the FHA, which is inextricably intertwined with the history of redlining explored in the Johnson County Museum’s new special exhibit, REDLINED, reveals both the value of investment in communities and the long-lasting consequences of disinvestment.

A 1959 view of the Westbrooke subdivision in Overland Park. The area was built by Sturgeon and Taylor, prolific builders in Johnson County, during the 1940s. Johnson County Museum.
A 1959 view of the Westbrooke subdivision in Overland Park, Kansas. The area was built by Sturgeon and Taylor, prolific builders in suburban Johnson County, during the 1940s. Johnson County Museum.

An Era of Turmoil

When the Great Depression began in 1929, most Americans were concerned about affording food and rent, finding work, and making ends meet. Few considered buying or building a home. The real estate industry, through its national membership organization, the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), lobbied the federal government to help the struggling industry. NAREB leaders believed that two million of the 12 million unemployed people were in the building trades – by putting them back to work, the government could jump start the economy.

But homebuying was unattainable for many Americans prior to the Great Depression. The typical terms were 50 percent as a down payment with the other 50 percent of the home cost paid off over the next three to five years. Interest rates were high, there were no lines of equity, and often balloon payments drove homeowners out of their home in the final months of repayment. But NAREB had a plan to transform home buying. They just needed the federal government to help.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a home loan bill in 1933. Library of Congress.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a home loan bill in 1933. Library of Congress.

The Government Lends a Hand

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration launched the New Deal programs after 1933, one of those programs was meant to help current homeowners in default. Called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), it purchased mortgages in default to make the banks whole, and then extended new mortgages directly from the federal government using U.S. Treasury funds from taxpayers. This unprecedented intervention into the private real estate market came with unprecedented mortgage terms – low monthly payments, low interest rates, and longer loan terms.

The HOLC program was so popular, and the mortgage terms believed to be so accessible, that the federal government launched the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934. Through the FHA, the government sought to extend homeownership to as many white Americans as possible by extending unprecedented mortgage terms: 10 to 20 percent down payments, 20-year loan terms, low monthly payments, low interest rates, and amortization (equal payments with a portion going to the principal loan amount and a portion going to interest), as well as the potential to access equity as a line of credit. The FHA backed the mortgages by covering the insurance on the loan, taking all the risk off of the banks. The FHA made the threshold to buying a home so much lower, thereby making owning a home more accessible to far more Americans.

The mapping division of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. The HOLC was the first federal intervention into the real estate market and set revolutionary home mortgage terms later copied by the FHA. Library of Congress.
The mapping division of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. The HOLC was the first federal intervention into the real estate market and set revolutionary home mortgage terms later copied by the FHA. Library of Congress.

The FHA Builds Suburbia

The FHA program’s results speak for themselves. Suburbs across the nation exploded with new home builds and populations as young families bought or built their first homes. Following World War II, the Veterans Administration (VA) adopted the FHA’s policies and procedures to help place white veterans in new homes for zero money down. This aid helped the Greatest Generation become homeowners, something that their parents’ generation could rarely afford. By 1950, the FHA and the VA were backing 51 percent of all home mortgage loans. New housing starts reached 1.7 million in that year alone.

The FHA helped launch the idea of home ownership as the American Dream. Because mortgage payments were low ($39 per month in the 1940s, less than $700 in 2019 dollars), young families had more money in their pockets each month to save up, or to spend. The postwar era was known for consumerism, as Americans purchased second cars, washing machines, took vacations, saved up for college funds, and built additions to their homes. Most homes that received FHA-backed mortgages were new, and owners could be reasonably sure they would earn a profit if they sold their homes. Additionally, homeowners could access lines of credit through their equity to help maintain or enlarge their homes.

An image of the American Dream: a new Prairie Village home with a car in the driveway. Johnson County Museum.
An image of the American Dream: a new Prairie Village, Kansas suburban home with a car in the driveway. Johnson County Museum.

The investment in white suburban homes was massive. Historians and sociologists estimate that 11 million households purchased a home through an FHA-backed mortgage by 1972. One researcher estimated that the federal government extended mortgage insurance for over $120 billion in home purchases in the 1950s – or more than 1.239 quintillion 2019 dollars. This unfathomable number represents just the initial injection of money into suburban communities. The long-term consequences of this federal investment is incalculable. 

In the Kansas City area, between 1934 and 1962, experts estimate the FHA extended more than 77,000 government-backed mortgage loans (this number does not include any VA-backed mortgage loans). Homebuyers in Johnson County received 16,624 of these mortgages. The county’s population skyrocketed, growing from 33,327 in 1940 to 143,792 by 1960.

Aerial view of Prairie Village Shopping Center, planned and built by J.C. Nichols. Prairie Village was built to meet FHA loan requirements and was Nichols’ first suburban community for the middle-class. Johnson County Museum.
Aerial view of Prairie Village Shopping Center, planned and built by J.C. Nichols. Prairie Village, Kansas was built to meet FHA loan requirements and was Nichols’ first suburban community for the middle-class. Johnson County Museum.

“Federally Mandated Segregation”

Only some Americans were able to realize the benefits of the FHA and VA backed loans. This is evident by the growth in Johnson County’s population during the first decades of the policy – it grew by 110,000 white residents between 1940 and 1960, the Black population grew by just 150 residents. The growth in Johnson County’s white population stems from the FHA’s racially discriminatory lending practices. The FHA’s 1938 Underwriting Manual, the guide on how to work with the FHA, stipulated that eligible homes were required to have restrictive covenants (lists of rules governing how the property was used), including racially restrictive covenants to ensure a “prohibition of the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended.” The FHA manual went on to explain that “if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally contributes to instability and a decline in values.”

This property deed abstract contains a list of restrictions for the property’s use, including a racially restrictive covenant outlined in red. Homes in Roeland Park, built by Charles E. Vawter, were built to meet FHA requirements. Johnson County Museum.
This property deed abstract contains a list of restrictions for the property’s use, including a racially restrictive covenant outlined in red. Homes in Roeland Park, Kansas, built by Charles E. Vawter, were built to meet FHA requirements. Johnson County Museum.

Th assumption that Black people and other communities of color devalue not only their own property but all the homes in the neighborhood surrounding them was rooted in NAREB’s policies and practices that had been honed for a generation prior. This belief, however, had no factual basis. No report or statistical analysis was ever produced to prove it. Still NAREB members worked as advisors to the federal government when the FHA was created, bringing their private discriminatory practices to the table as federal policy was being shaped. The FHA refused to work with Black Americans (and often Latinos, Asian Americans, and other communities of color) and explicitly required developers to exclude African Americans from their subdivisions. Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, characterized the FHA’s discriminatory requirements as “federally mandated segregation.”

By 1947, 96 percent of suburban developments in Johnson County (148 out of 154 neighborhoods) were racially restricted. This means that Black families and other people of color were prohibited from owning, leasing, renting, or occupying homes there. Of the 77,000 FHA-backed loans in the Kansas City area between 1934 and 1962, less than one percent (770 at most) went to Black families, and often for older homes in segregated neighborhoods.

These informational signs were created by the FHA to promote the accessible terms of the FHA program. While they advertised that “your rent money will buy a home,” the federal home mortgage program required segregation and promoted discriminatory lending practices. Library of Congress.
These informational signs were created by the FHA to promote the accessible terms of the FHA program. While they advertised that “your rent money will buy a home,” the federal home mortgage program required segregation and promoted discriminatory lending practices. Library of Congress.

Changing the System

The homebuying system has changed today. First, racially restrictive covenants favored by real estate developers and required by the FHA were deemed unenforceable (not unconstitutional) by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Shelley v Kraemer decision in 1948 (the FHA permitted filing them through February 15, 1950). Additionally, Congress passed the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which made redlining – both the private practice and federal policy – illegal. Subsequent legislation, such as the Community Reinvestment Act, the addition of a presidential cabinet position for the director of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and other federal regulations have worked to make home lending more equitable and accessible, especially for communities of color. The FHA continues to provide accessible mortgages to hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.

The FHA’s history is complex, full of incredible stories about launching homeownership for millions of families across the nation. Yet it is also a history full of heartbreaking stories of loan denials, exclusion, and discrimination. As a social program born out of the Great Depression, the FHA was integral to creating suburban communities like those located in northeastern Johnson County and around cities across the nation. Yet it shaped who could enjoy the benefits of more accessible home loan terms, who could enjoy the newly built suburbs, and who could realize the American Dream for decades.

For more information about the FHA, redlining, and related history, view the Johnson County Museum’s newest special exhibition, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation. Included in Museum admission, and open for viewing Monday through Saturday, 9am to 4:30pm. Learn more: www.jcprd.com/Redlined.

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An Accomplishment 55 Years in the Making: Celebrating the Johnson County Museum’s First-Ever National Accreditation

by Dr. Mary McMurray, Johnson County Museum Director

Have you heard the amazing news from the Johnson County Museum? If not, please let me be the first to share with you that the Johnson County Museum earned national accreditation for the first time ever!

Accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums is the highest recognition museums can earn. It signifies quality and credibility and brings national recognition to the museum for our commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement. Of the nation’s estimated 35,000 museums, just 1,095 are accredited – and only two in the Greater Kansas City area. The Johnson County Museum is one of 11 accredited museums in Kansas.

Achieving national accreditation is not  something that can be done alone. It requires a broad network of people working together to do something that can seem impossible: joining the ranks of the 3% of  museums nationwide who have earned this high honor.  

More than three years ago, the Johnson County Museum and our partners started a journey to national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The path took many unexpected twists and turns as museum staff navigated through a global pandemic, temporary museum closure, and staff transitions (including me joining the team as Museum Director on April 6, 2020), but the team never gave up. We faced the process just like we faced the challenges: with a commitment to serving the public and the highest professional standards. I am so proud of the resilience, perseverance, and dedication of the team that made this huge honor possible.

As a historian, I often find myself reflecting on the past to find meaning in the present. As I reflect on this tremendous achievement for the museum today, I cannot help but think there is something so beautiful in the fact that we earned national accreditation during a major anniversary – our 55th. That is because accreditation is a reflection not just of the work we do today, but the work that brought us to this point. Today, I want to take a few minutes to share with you four reasons we are celebrating this huge first in the Johnson County Museum’s history.

Accreditation celebrates generation’s of service to the community

Members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society Board of Directors (the predecessor of the Johnson County Museum) in 1949. Johnson County Museum.

The Johnson County Museum traces its roots to community service, when a small group of dedicated volunteers had the forethought to know that collecting, preserving, and sharing the history of our county was important to the fabric of our community. Today, you see their legacy in the Museum’s collection, but also in our visitor first philosophy. Because this organization was formed with a service mindset from the outset, today our staff views visitors not as an interruption of our work, but the reason for it. This focus on service to our visitors and community was critical to earning national accreditation, and it was woven into our DNA by the decades of volunteers who poured their time, energy, knowledge, and passion for community history into the museum from the beginning. As we celebrate our national accreditation today, we also celebrate the community volunteers who started it all.

Accreditation is a testament to the professionalism of the Museum’s staff

Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, Ed Eilert, makes remarks at a celebration of the Johnson County Museum’s first-ever national accreditation.

In 1986, the Museum became part of Johnson County Government and hired its first professional staff. Beginning with Janet Campbell (the Museum’s first director who accepted the All-Electric House into the Collection) through Mindi Love (who led the museum through the move to the fantastic  Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center and began the accreditation process) and now me, each Museum Director has had the opportunity and honor to hire and lead professionally trained people who, like the volunteers on whose shoulders we all stand, are dedicated to serving our community. Our national accreditation today is the outcome of nearly four decades of working toward the highest standards for museum work. We literally could not have achieved this high honor without the hard work and dedication of the Johnson County Museum staff past and present. Thank you all.

Members of the Johnson County Museum staff and volunteers celebrate accreditation.

Accreditation is a reflection of the excellence we strive for each and every day here at Johnson County Park and Recreation District
Five years ago, the Johnson County Museum became part of JCPRD and, eventually, the Culture Division. During that time, we also moved to our stunning new location at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center. In this incredible building surrounded by the talented, innovative, and creative talents that work here (and throughout JCPRD), the Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary. For those of you who know JCPRD well, it will be no surprise that shortly after that milestone, the team here set their sights on accreditation. This effort is, after all, just a reflection of the environment in which we work – one that is dedicated to the highest standards of excellence and service; one that is always striving to improve.

Don’t take my word for it. The accreditors praised the placement of the museum in Parks and noted that we are “supported in ways most museums do not have the luxury of,” including working for an executive director who “fully understands the value the museum brings to enhance the quality of area residents’ lives.” We are so grateful to JCPRD leadership and our colleagues for the standard of excellence they set – and the robust support they offer to help us meet our lofty goals.

Members of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners, Johnson County Park and Recreation District Board of Commissioners, JCPRD and County Leadership, Museum Advisory Council, Johnson County Museum Foundation, and The Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County joined in celebrating the Johnson County Museum on this honor.

Accreditation would not be possible without the support of our outstanding partners
Since its inception, the Johnson County Museum has benefitted from a strong relationship with Johnson County and our colleagues in it. As part of the accreditation, we went through a two-day site visit during which the peer reviewers examined all of our spaces (including maintenance closets, behind doors, and more!) and assessed our operations. One key thing they were looking for was that we maintained optimal conditions for collections storage. During their visit, the peer reviewers crossed paths with our partner in County Facilities who was very new on staff and began peppering him with questions about humidity and temperature levels where collections items are stored. Although our Facilities partner was very new to the team, he expertly responded to all of the questions. This is but one of many examples of how the Facilities team helps the museum operate both our main location in Overland Park and Lanesfield Historic Site in Edgerton. From maintaining optimal humidity and temperatures for locations where we store artifacts and providing security for those spaces to maintaining historic buildings and transforming others, our relationships with Johnson County facilities, planning, sheriff’s department, communications, leadership, and more are also part of this huge accomplishment as well.

Joan Barkley Wells and Nancy Wallerstein, who have served in board leadership roles in both the Museum and JCPRD celebrate together.

The Johnson County Museum is also lucky to have excellent partners around our community. From the collaborative museum community in the region to our membership base, from area chambers of commerce to our donors and volunteers, community partners make us better, help us serve, and help us grow. For example, for the past 35 years, the Museum has benefitted from the guidance, support, partnership, and collaboration with not one, but two volunteer boards: the Museum Advisory Council and the Johnson County Museum Foundation. Members of each board dedicate numerous hours to helping the museum with everything from evaluating climate reports in museum spaces to raising nearly a million dollars to help the museum move to the Arts & Heritage Center. For accreditation, specifically, we had to develop, review, and approve policies for conducting museum business and a strategic plan. Like the campaign to raise funds to move to this location, the Museum staff did not do this alone. We did it alongside and with those who choose to volunteer their time and talents on behalf of the mission. In this moment of accomplishment, we want to thank all of the members of the Johnson County Museum Foundation Board of Directors and Museum Advisory Council who were a major part of the museum’s accreditation.

Public service, professionalism, excellence, and partnerships. Each of these were critical to the Johnson County Museum earning is first-ever national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. From this incredibly strong foundation, the Museum worked for three years to earn this recognition. Through changes in staff, a global pandemic, and a host of other obstacles, the work continued. And that really is a testament to the environment in which we work. We stand on the legacy of those who came before us in this institution, emboldened by the high performing and mission-driven work found throughout Johnson County and JCPRD, and empowered by our teammates and community partners to become one of the fewer than 30 county museums in the United States with national accreditation. We are so proud. And we hope you will join us in celebrating the Johnson County Museum. To learn more, visit www.jcprd.com/museum.

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Go West Young Man

This post coincides with a library programming series around the book “Go West Young Man: a Father and Son Rediscover America on the Oregon Trail” by B.J. Hollars. The first program is on March 22 with “Make Every Mile a Memory: A Reading and Presentation with B.J. and Henry Hollars,” then on March 23 “Travel Writing for Dummies: On Rattlesnakes, Wagon Ruts, and Making the World Feel Like Home with B.J. Hollars,” and finally on March 26 “The Story of Your Life: Writing Your Forgotten Past Workshop with B.J. Hollars.”

During the mid-nineteenth century, an estimated 250,000 – 500,000 emigrants made their way through Johnson County to the Pacific Northwest via the Oregon Trail. The trail spanned 2,000 miles from Independence and Westport, MO, with the Santa Fe Trail before splitting off southwest of present day Gardner.

Travelers on the trail managed only 15 – 20 miles a day, meaning they needed to start the trail in late spring to make it past the mountains, both Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, before the first snow six months later. Johnson County offered multiple campgrounds for people to rest as well as graze and water their animals. Sapling Grove in Overland Park, Flat Rock Creek in Lenexa, and the Mahaffie Farmstead and the Lone Elm Campground, both near Olathe, proved popular stops for the first night of travel. Read below for first hand account of travelers who passed through Johnson County.

Sar-Ko-Par Trail park. Covered wagon and team of oxen facing right in picture. Pics courtesy of Norman/Carolina Keech family. JoCoHistory

“I then emerged into the open prairie and…I began to suspect I had lost my way.  To add to my discomfiture, I had forgotten to put my compass in my pocket, and there were so many different paths leading in all directions towards the different Indian villages along the frontier, and intersecting each other continually, that it was almost in vain trying to keep to any one, and I became completely puzzled.”
William Fairholme, 1840.

“Our long journey thus began in sunshine and sun, in anecdote and laughter; but these all vanished before we reached its termination.” Peter Burnett, 1843.

The vast prairie itself soon opened before us in all its grandeur and beauty.  I had never before beheld extensive scenery of this kind…The view of the illimitable succession of green undulations and flowery slopes, of every gentle and graceful configuration, stretching away and away until they fade from the sight in the dim distance, creates a wild and scarcely controllable ecstasy of admiration.”  Edwin Bryant, 1846.

“There is no other tree or bush or shrub save one Elm tree, which stands on a small elevation near the little creek or branch.  The travelers (sic) always (sic) stop where there is water sufficient for all their animals.  The grass is fine every place, it is so tall in some places as to conceal a man’s waist.” Susan Magoffin, 1846.

My horse, not satisfied to stand on the brink, walked into the water, and forthwith began to sink in mire.  In my endeavor to extricate the animal I found it necessary to dismount, and in doing this, by some mischance, leapt into the midst of the pond.  Scrambling out, I had considerable difficulty in getting the horse to follow; and when he did so, discovered that he had lamed himself in his left thigh so that I could use him but little afterwards.  This occurrence eventually led to the use of my own legs in crossing the continent, instead of those I had calculated upon, and I thus became an expert pedestrian ever after.” William G. Johnston, 1849.

“The country passed over to day (sic) is apparently very productive & the soil good.  Plenty of good grass for stock & water in abundance, at respectful distances, from each watering place.  The face of the country is now level & now very good & made 13 miles today Camp(ed) on ‘Bull Creek’…” Jackson Thomason, 1849.

Marker for the Oregon and Santa Fe trails near Gardner, Kansas. JoCoHistory

-Amanda Wahlmeier, Johnson County Library

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3 Impactful Moments in the REDLINED Exhibit

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.

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

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.

1 – 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.

A wall listing neighborhoods that bore racially restrictive covenants is one of several large-scale visualizations in the REDLINED exhibit.

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 four Kansas City area counties (Johnson in Kansas, and Jackson, Platte, and Clay counties in Missouri) 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.

2 – A National Story with Local Impacts

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 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.

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.

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

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.

3 – 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 21st century (largely the cause of the 2008 economic recession).

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

In addition to ongoing inequities in homebuying, 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.

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


The REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation exhibition is in the Johnson County Museum. The Museum is open Monday – Saturday, 9am – 4:30pm 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.

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