Decades after influential developer J.C. Nichols kept Blacks, Jews and other minorities out of subdivisions he built that transformed the Kansas City region, protests over the death of George Floyd might lead to his name being removed from one of the city’s most iconic sites.
The Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation is considering removing Nichols’ name from a fountain and an adjacent parkway near the upscale Country Club Plaza, which Nichols developed. The J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain is the best known and most photographed fountain in the “City of Fountains” and adorns most tourism and marketing promotions for Kansas City.
It honors a man who developed more than 4,000 acres of residential property in the area in the 1900s, offering middle-class to upscale homes on tree-lined streets with large lawns and other amenities not generally available at the time. The neighborhoods he built are still among the most desirable residential areas in the region.
His reputation is being scrutinized because Nichols used deed restrictions to keep Blacks, Jews and other minorities from buying his homes — a practice known as redlining — relegating them to poorer neighborhoods and helping to create a racially separated city that remains to this day. Nichols also became influential nationally, with developers elsewhere following his practices, according to history professor William Worley.
The idea of removing Nichols’ name gained momentum amid protests over racial injustice, sparked by the May 25 death of Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee onto the handcuffed Black man’s neck for nearly eight minutes.
“When you look at what’s going on — the racial climate, the push for social justice — the attention to J.C. Nichols really is part of a bigger conversation,” said Chris Goode, a parks board commissioner who introduced the proposal to rename the fountain and parkway. “His practices helped lead to the climate we have today. Collectively, the world and Kansas City are just ready to turn the page, start a new day.”
The proposal seems to have broad support in the city of about 500,000 residents, about 30% of whom are Black. During a recent public meeting, only four of about 40 people who spoke opposed removing Nichols’ name. Goode said about only 18% of the initial 350 emails the parks board received were from opponents. No organized group has formed to keep Nichols’ name.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas supports removing the name, saying in a statement: “No person accelerated white flight, redlining, and racial division in the Kansas City area more than J.C. Nichols.”
Tim O’Mara, a Kansas City salesman, was among those arguing to keep Nichols’ name. He told The Associated Press that he doesn’t defend Nichols’ racist policies but believes they were a reflection of his times.
“I’m not in favor of throwing out our history, of throwing out all the old statues and monuments,” O’Mara said. “I don’t think anything about the (deed restrictions) was acceptable, but there’s no need to wipe him away from our history.”
Worley, who wrote “J.C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City,” said deed restrictions go back in English law to at least the 16th century and were designed to protect property values.
“I’m not going to defend his racial decisions, but his main reasons were economic,” Worley said. “He was interested primarily in attracting people to his developments who could afford his homes and would maintain them for many years. Making an economic decision that was also racially discriminatory was in line with most developers of that era.”
Many people aren’t aware of Nichols’ national influence, Goode said, which makes it important for Kansas City to symbolically reject his practices by removing his name. He argues that statues, monuments and street names represent the city’s brand and should make everyone feel welcome.
The parks board’s next meeting is Tuesday. If it votes to remove the name, city officials would continue to take suggestions for new names until at least July 7.
Goode has suggested renaming the fountain the Dream Fountain. He initially proposed renaming the J.C. Nichols Parkway for Martin Luther King Jr., but withdrew that suggestion after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference objected, saying the short parkway was not a sufficient honor for the civil rights leader.
Kansas City is one of the largest cities in the country with no street named for King after a debate erupted last year when officials renamed a major thoroughfare for him. Voters overwhelmingly chose to return the street’s name to The Paseo.