Because the famed developer undermined the lives of generations of black Kansas Citians, J.C. Nichols’ name should be removed from the city’s greatest fountain, writes Steve Kraske. KEITH MYERS The Kansas City Star
Because the famed developer undermined the lives of generations of black Kansas Citians, J.C. Nichols’ name should be removed from the city’s greatest fountain, writes Steve Kraske. KEITH MYERS The Kansas City Star

Steve Kraske

Steve Kraske: I’m still talking about J.C. Nichols, racism and renaming the fountain

By Steve Kraske

skraske@kcstar.com

June 29, 2017 05:47 PM

UPDATED June 30, 2017 10:30 AM

Well, I’m not done with J.C. Nichols. Not yet.

A couple of weeks ago, I weighed in with my proposal to remove Mr. Nichols’ name from Kansas City’s most glorious fountain. My argument was simple: With some cities in the South removing their monuments to Civil War heroes, it’s time for Kansas City to reconsider its own tribute. Nichols brought the Country Club Plaza and great neighborhoods to Kansas City, but he deliberately split this town between blacks and whites for generations.

Through restrictive deeds, Nichols situated white people in better neighborhoods, and that resulted in their children going to better schools. He deprived generations of African-Americans and children of certain religious faiths of a quality education. He prevented their parents from accumulating the personal wealth that comes from owning homes in prosperous neighborhoods.

He did that by stipulating that only white people could live in the homes he built in some of our city’s most desirable areas: Armour Hills, Brookside and Crestwood on the Missouri side; Fairway, Mission Hills and Prairie Village in Kansas.

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In short, much of what he left to this city was delivered on the backs of African-Americans. It wasn’t right then, nor is it today.

My thoughts resulted in a cannon blast of comments — no surprise there — ranging from how stupid they were to how welcome. I can report that of several hundred responses, about 75 percent were supportive.

One of the more interesting reactions came from Mayor Sly James during his appearance on The Star’s “Beer Hour” on Facebook Live. James seemed to struggle with his answer.

Mayor Sly James responds to question about renaming J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain

During a recent Facebook Live appearance, Kansas City Mayor Sly James talked about whether the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain should be renamed.

Shelly Yang The Kansas City Star

“Are there instances where a person who is flawed can still be honored for their good? I don’t know the answer,” he said. “I’ve not reached a decision as to how I feel about it.”

The mayor said his concern is that the fight over renaming something like this fountain can be divisive. The key, he said, is “teaching people the truth.”

“And then,” he said, “if there’s a movement and everybody’s hip to the facts and the history, then at least they’re doing it on something other than a knee-jerk reaction.”

Fair enough. In the meantime, here’s my response to some of the most common criticisms I heard:

If you rename the Nichols fountain, then you’ve got to rename anything that memorializes anybody who did anything bad.

That’s not my aim. My proposal is to rename one fountain in Kansas City as a gesture of goodwill while this country continues its agonizing struggle over race. We don’t have to change the world here. But we can take a step forward in our hometown.

You can’t degrade J.C. Nichols for being a man of his time.

Oh, yes you can. It’s true: Nichols did what developers all over the nation did at that time. But great people push past their backgrounds. Harry Truman grew up telling racist jokes but wound up desegregating the armed forces just as Nichols reached the height of his influence.

You’re rewriting history.

Nope. Not changing a word of it. Just asking that Nichols’ name be taken off a fountain.

This won’t change a thing.

That may be true, but it’s one step in a long journey. It would serve as a signal that this town is progressing.

The impact of racial injustice clings to this country. We need to do more to shed it. Memorializing J.C. Nichols today simply sends the wrong message about a man who used racial division to build a business empire.