In simplest terms, redlining can be defined as a lack of investment in one neighborhood in favor of another, typically based on race. Although that may sound vague, it usually refers to specific policies and practices regarding where home loans would be made, with “red lines” drawn on maps of the cities around Black neighborhoods labeled as unqualified for investment.
On August 31, Bishop Bob Farr, the Conference directors and the Cabinet visited the Johnson County Museum in Overland Park, Kansas, to see the redlining exhibit and its impact on the nation, specifically on Kansas City.
Curator of Interpretation Andrew R. Gustafson led the group on a narrated exhibit tour, which follows a chronological path from origins to present-day impacts.
“Once you learn about this issue, you see it all around you,” Gustafson said.
The three amendments following the Civil War (13th-15th) ended slavery, made all of us born people citizens regardless of race and granted Black men the right to vote. The time of these amendments is referred to as reconstruction and lasted about 10 years. Unfortunately, it was followed by the Jim Crow era of oppression, intimidation and violence.
Gustafson explained those times as the origin of a great migration. Several million African Americans moved from the rural south to the north and cities. Still reeling from slavery and oppression, they were a largely uneducated, impoverished community. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent. Real hardline segregation was forming in cities.
“The reason 18th and Vine became such a vibrant community for Black people was that downtown Kansas City was off-limits to African Americans at that time,” Gustafson said. Advances in transportation, like street cars, allowed people to move further from their workplaces. Homeowner associations had restrictive covenants that said homes in that area could not be sold to African Americans. Redlining started shaping the urban landscape.
“In Kansas City in 1939, 52% of neighborhoods were redlined. The act of redlining was denying people of color a mortgage. It was deemed too risky,” Gustafson said. “Almost every Black person lived in a redlined area.”
In Kansas City, 180,000 White people moved out of the city. Real estate agents purchased property at a loss and sold it to Black people at a profit. Over time large highways were built to help people get quickly from the suburbs to downtown, with little regard for the neighborhoods these highways were dividing and the communities they were being built through and over.
The Missouri Conference group gathered in the lobby following the tour to process what they had seen. As pastors, they could look at our own United Methodist Churches and track the White flight from the cities, with the most historic, large downtown churches often now empty, the second round of churches further out in the city often struggling and the newer churches in the suburbs today being the most “vital.”
Of course, those healthy churches in the suburbs have been largely responsible for supporting the United Methodist Church and its ministries for decades, but considering all the factors that have contributed to those suburbs being a more prosperous area is troubling.
Southeast District Superintendent Bruce Baxter recalled that he was part of that system growing up on the fringes of different urban areas.
“When we moved, my parents looked for a house in the suburbs and found a good Methodist church nearby,” he said.
Conference District Superintendent Jon Thompson said learning about redlining helps him identify his own implicit bias.
“From the time I was three years old, I heard that when Black people move to the neighborhood, property values come down,” he said.
Director of Congregational Excellence Mark Sheets was taken aback at the large impact profiteering has on society. “When you consider how all this was done in pursuit and protection of money, it’s just gross,” he said.
Lucas Endicott, associate director of Mission, Service and Justice Ministries, said looking deeply at how systems were developed to oppress people based on the color of their skin and thus shaped the development of cities for generations undercuts more straightforward ideas.
“Many of us grew up with the fallacy that all individuals had (an equal) opportunity to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” he said.
Director of Financial and Administrative Ministries Nate Berneking said it is impossible not to participate in how white privilege has been commodified.
“White people in the suburbs were furious about how long it was taking to commute to their jobs downtown, so eminent domain was used to
build highways through Black neighborhoods,” he said.
The exhibit is the product of hundreds of hours of staff research, utilizing over 120 books, scholarly articles, dissertations and newspaper articles, and thousands of primary source documents housed at regional and national archives. The exhibit will close on January 7, 2023.