Whitney Terrell’s 2005 Novel Inspired by Nichols Company Racial Covenants Speaks to Moment
Housing discrimination, as practiced for years by the J.C. Nichols Company, is one of the many issues highlighted by recent Black Lives Matter protests in Kansas City. Now, with the historic decision to rename the J.C. Nichols fountain and other Nichols memorials in response to these protests, it seemed a good time to revisit Whitney Terrell’s groundbreaking 2005 novel, “The King of Kings County,” inspired by the racist real estate covenants that formed many of the residential neighborhoods in Kansas City.
Terrell, an award-winning author and journalist who grew up and lives in Kansas City, is an associate professor in the Creative Writing Program at UMKC. His first novel, “The Huntsman,” about race and class in Kansas City, was a “New York Times” notable book of 2001. His second book, “The King of Kings County,” tells the story of the racial covenants used to build a segregated suburban empire and was inspired by the true story of J.C. Nichols’ rise to power in Kansas City. It was chosen as a 2005 best book by “The Christian Science Monitor.”
In 2006 Terrell was named one of the best writers under 40 by the National Book Critics Circle. In 2006 and 2010 he was embedded with the U.S army in Iraq and wrote for “Slate,” NPR and “The Washington Post.” His novel “The Good Lieutenant,” about the Iraq war, was selected by “The Boston Globe” and “The Washington Post” as a best book of 2016. He is currently writing a novel that focuses on the KC Crossroads.
The following conversation was condensed from a recent interview with Whitney Terrell:
Both “The Huntsman” (2001) and “The King of Kings County” (2005) were shocking to a lot of people here because of the blatant racism you depicted in Kansas City. What made you decide to write about this topic?
When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, I studied with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson. He told me that race was the central story in American life, and that advice stayed with me. People in the 1990s and early 2000s didn’t think that northern cities were segregated, but they were, and Kansas City was hyper-segregated. No one talked or wrote about it, and I wanted to know why. My great aunt Libby Snyder, who was a bibliophile, showed me the abstract of her house and the racial restrictions it included. She was the first person who ever spoke to me about that history.
“The King of Kings County” covers more than five decades of real estate wheeling and dealing in which you show how the growth of the suburbs, white flight and the decimation of a fictional downtown came about because of the toxic racist practices of a developer named Alton Acheson — whose son, Jack, narrates the book — and the J.C. Nichols-like Prudential Bowen. What were some of their tactics?
I basically copied J.C. Nichols’ racial covenants into the book. The language typically read “none of the lots hereby restricted may be conveyed to, used, owned nor occupied by negroes as owners or tenants,” and these covenants were auto-renewing. They could be changed every 25 years, but unless one applied five years before to make the changes, it wouldn’t happen.
And of course, that was too cumbersome, so it never happened.
You graduated from Pembroke Hill in 1986, your aunt is the philanthropist Jeannette Nichols, the second wife of the late Miller Nichols. You are related by that marriage to their daughter, Kay Callison, who, with other Nichols family members, has expressed support for efforts to rename the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain and parkway on the Country Club Plaza. How did your relatives react to “The King of Kings County” when it was first published? Did you get criticism from people in Kansas City?
Nobody has ever disagreed, openly, to my face, about what the covenants said and did. My aunt has been incredibly supportive of the MFA program in Creative Writing at UMKC, and I appreciate Kay Callison’s engagement with the decision to change the fountain’s name. Compared to the decades-long suffering by Black citizens of Kansas City, who were prevented from accumulating any kind of generational wealth they could pass on to their children, any criticism I might have received doesn’t matter. I applaud Chris Goode, Jack Holland and the Parks Board for their unifying work on this.
What advice do you give your students who want to write novels — a notoriously difficult task?
Find the projects you’re most passionate about. It could take years to write a book. You must believe that “I have to tell this story.” That’s what promotes perseverance.
What do you hope to achieve when you write your books?
When you write socially conscious fiction that’s not a known story, there’s the possibility that what you say will enter into the mind of the public. I knew I wanted to change the sanitized public version of what the Nichols’ company had been telling the public for years, even though there was risk doing it.
The J.C. Nichols real estate covenants were so effective in maintaining racial divides that they were literally cut and pasted by development groups and HOAs all across the United States, which many people are not aware of. What do you think of Kansas City now?
I’m very happy to be living in Kansas City. So many encouraging things have happened here in the last 10 years. I’m glad to see the rise of so many Black community leaders and increasing diversity in neighborhoods and schools. We’re by no means perfect but I was born here, and this will always be my town, for good or bad, and every person in it matters to me. That’s why I write.