‘This Is Not Easy Viewing’

Installation view of “Redlined: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation,” which features many detailed maps showing the boundaries of redlining (Johnson County Museum)

Johnson County Museum ‘Redlined’ exhibit examines discrimination in housing practices

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

Cesar A. Cruz

“Redlined: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation,” a special exhibit at the Johnson County Museum, embodies the purpose of art as expressed by Cesar Cruz. It uses a dazzling organization of images, text, sound, art and artifacts to provide a “deep dive” into the issues of redlining and systemic racism in housing.

For those of us, such as myself, whose parents’ dreams and goals were limited by these practices, this exhibition provides some comfort and a sense of vindication. Many of us remember how the crushing weight of living under years of various manifestations of racism left our parents broken and fatigued. Seeing how deeply pervasive this racism was in housing (and other areas) reminds us that they truly did “fight the good fight” even if the depravity of the system they fought against is just now being fully recognized.

In academic terms, this exhibit is a must-see for anyone who seeks an understanding of how both business and political leadership, from local to national levels, worked together to deprive Black Americans of equal housing, and how the consequences of their actions impact our nation today. For anyone seeking to understand the foundations of today’s wealth disparity, this should be required viewing.

According to the museum’s website, “Redlining refers to the systematic disinvestment of some neighborhoods and populations. This means that private industry and later the federal government chose to fund and support home purchases for some people and neighborhoods over others. The policy and practice of redlining were integral to the buildup of the nation’s suburban communities. Although the policy was outlawed with the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, the legacies of the system continue to impact our community and the nation.”

Academically and aesthetically invigorating, the 2,000-square-foot exhibit includes more than 100 images, multiple display cases containing original objects and documents, large-scaled displays illustrating restrictive covenants by neighborhood, detailed maps showing the boundaries of redlining, and original art by members of Kansas City’s African American Artists Collective. Running on a loop in the exhibit, a video produced by Nick Combs, Johnson County Park & Recreation digital media coordinator, features cultural leaders from previously redlined communities.

While each section is identified with large titles such as “Redlining By Another Name” or “Challenging The System,” it is the thick red line that runs throughout the exhibit that guides the viewer. Sometimes with black and white text and sometimes with no text, this line serves as a stark reminder that while redlining may not officially exist today, the damage it inflicted upon Black Americans may never cease to exist.

A display of the legendary board game “Monopoly,” describing how the game was created to challenge economic inequality. (photo by Harold Smith)

This is not easy viewing. A sign at the entrance states, “This exhibit contains difficult subject matter and may evoke strong emotions.” Can you imagine discovering that the advantages you experienced in life were not simply fate or because of the smart choices of your parents? What if you discovered that they were effectively ripped from the hands of Black citizens through redlining and other forms of racist housing practices, even with their full knowledge or refusal to acknowledge it? Can you imagine knowing that the lifestyle you enjoy today was only possible because someone else was denied the same opportunities and resources? Wrap your mind around the fact that your personal wealth would be far less were it not for the very issues addressed in this exhibit?

Exhibits like this challenge our very notions of equity, citizenship, human empathy and decency.

No, this is not easy viewing.

One of the most harrowing artifacts is a Declaration of Restrictions for a Prairie Village homeowner. Paragraph 2 forbids the sale of the property to African Americans.

For me, a few artifacts stood out.

A 1952 NAACP membership flier and an original copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” are quite engaging.

A very interesting artifact is a display of the legendary board game “Monopoly,” describing how the game was created to challenge economic inequality. Reminding us that the practices of redlining were pervasive on a national level, the display states, “In the 1930s in Atlantic City, New Jersey, realtor Jesse Raiford affixed prices to the games’ squares to represent the real-life economic hierarchy in his city. Racial segregation and the emerging policy of redlining informed these prices.”

One of the most harrowing artifacts is a Declaration of Restrictions for a Prairie Village homeowner. Paragraph 2 forbids the sale of the property to African Americans. It’s right there in black and white. No amount of reactionary legislation can make it go away.

The exhibit also features a micro-art exhibit featuring works related to the history and legacies of redlining from the African American Artists Collective. Original artworks by living Black artists of Kansas City speak to the indelible truth that healing will only come when we do work together, realizing we have more in common than we have differently, are willing to admit how these practices have shaped all our lives, and do have a true desire to see social equity succeed.

A year and a half in the making, the exhibit reflects the efforts and research of an exhibition committee led by Andrew R. Gustafson, the museum’s curator of interpretation, who worked with Anne Jones, curator of collections, Leah Palmer, curator of education, and the museum’s director, Mary McMurray.

Other members of the team included Emerging Museum Professional Intern, Ryanne Pritchard, a UMKC public history graduate student who sifted through “hundreds of Johnson County property deed abstracts and online databases of local newspaper articles,” Gustafson said. He credits Tim Bair, Theatre in the Park’s producing artistic director, and Justin Border, Johnson County Park & Recreation graphic designer, for turning the exhibit’s script and images into a visual story on the walls. Dr. Carmaletta Williams, director of the Black Archives of Mid-America, served as the project’s outside reviewer.

Accompanied by a full slate of programming at both the museum and other sites throughout the city, this is a life-changing exhibition that confronts some of the ugliest truths about our area with courage, honesty, grace and empathy.

“Redlined: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation” continues at the Johnson County Museum, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, 913.826.2787 or www.jcprd.com.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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