Racist language persists in some Kansas property records. Could these bills end that?

Courtesy of The State Historical Society of Missouri

Racist language that for decades has lingered in some Kansas property records and homes association documents would be easier to remove under bills proposed by two Johnson County lawmakers.

The legislation would authorize any city, county or the Kansas Human Rights Commission to eliminate a racially restrictive covenant by redacting it from the plat description or HOA governing document. Under current law, that language — though unenforceable — can only be removed by a homeowners association.

“These documents plainly refer to a historical blight that emanates from the origins of our communities,” Roeland Park City Administrator Keith Moody wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week urging them to support the measure.

“These restrictions are part of our past, but they have no place in our future. They need to be addressed immediately. We cannot erase these restrictions from historic documents but we can take action to remove them from the operative legal records. Though property restrictions based on race are not legally enforceable, it is past time for our communities to show that such language is not who we are or what we believe.”

The identical measures, House Bill 2174 and Senate Bill 77, were offered by Rep. Rui Xu, a Democrat from Westwood, and Sen. Ethan Corson, a Democrat from Fairway. They proposed the bills at the request of Roeland Park officials.

“I had some cities, in particular Roeland Park, come to me and say, ‘We’ve got a real interest in getting this language out of these deeds, but we’re not able to do it, because in many instances, there’s not an HOA,’” Corson told The Star. “So they need a statutory change. And this gives them that ability to act.”

Because the restrictive covenants aren’t enforceable, the bill doesn’t force a city to take action, Corson said. “It’s kind of a classic local control thing. We’re giving you the power to do it, if you want to do it.”

Xu said passage of the bills is crucial “because while the (racist) language is obviously not constitutional or enforceable, the fact that it exists still displays a very painful history, especially to our Black and Jewish residents.”

The racially restrictive covenants were routinely recorded in plats and deeds in the first half of the 20th century and placed in many homes association documents not only in the Kansas City area, but nationwide. Because of the way they were recorded, they were nearly impossible to eliminate.

J.C. Nichols’ racist covenants

One of Kansas City’s most prominent developers, J.C. Nichols, was among the first in the country to promote the restrictions. From 1908 through the 1940s, the J.C. Nichols Co. built dozens of subdivisions in the Kansas City area that contained the discriminatory language.

Most of the restrictions — including those in more than a dozen subdivisions in the Country Club District — prohibited ownership by Black people, but some Johnson County covenants were even more exclusionary, such as the “Declaration of Restrictions for Leawood Estates” filed by Kroh Bros. in 1945. It banned ownership or occupancy “by any person of Negro blood or by any person who is more than one-fourth of the Semitic race, blood, origin or extraction, including without limitation in said designation, Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Turks, Persians, Syrians and Arabians.”

There was, however, an exception: “Partial occupancy by bona fide domestic servants employed thereon.”

Racial restrictions were common in other Johnson County communities as well, including Prairie Village, Fairway and an area that later became part of Merriam.

The language was ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 and later deemed illegal by the Fair Housing Act. But many of the restrictions were never removed, mainly because they were written in a way that made them difficult to erase. Restrictions written before 1950 for many J.C. Nichols Co. subdivisions, for example, required that a notice to amend a homes association document be filed five years in advance of its renewal date — usually every 20 to 25 years — and that all homeowners agree to the change.

A 2005 investigation by The Star found that more than 1,200 documents involving thousands of homes in the Kansas City area still contained language banning Black people, Jews and members of other ethnic groups. After The Star’s report, Missouri and Kansas passed laws requiring HOAs to delete the restrictions without having to get approval from the homeowners.

But cities like Roeland Park have faced a challenge in removing the restrictions, Moody said, because the city no longer has any active HOAs.

“It’s not uncommon for homeowners associations to have been disbanded or actually never even been created,” Moody said. “That’s what we’ve discovered here. So there’s no organization to direct to remove the language or hold accountable if it has not been removed.”

Moody said that through title searches, the city has identified about 10 plats that either contain the racist language or have it written into the covenants and restrictions that were recorded with the plats.

In his Jan. 31 letter to members of the House Local Government Committee, Moody included two examples of the restrictions. One read: “Said lots shall be used for residence purposes only and shall never be conveyed, devised, leased, or rented to or used, owned, or occupied by any person of negro blood except partial occupancy by bona fide domestic servants.”

Without a change in the law, Moody said, in order to remove the “egregious” restrictive plats, the city would have to re-plat. That would require a new survey, he said, along with signatures of all property owners within the plat and “a significant expenditure of funds.”

“Similarly, to change current HOA covenants we must register each HOA with the State (if not already done), revise the covenants, submit the same, and then close the HOA — again requiring significant funds,” he wrote.

Under the bills, Moody said, a city could simply file the redacted documents and no individual property deed would be impacted.

“The need for this change is obvious,” he wrote. “We should not tolerate even the remnants of racism. … Allowing this offensive language to remain unchallenged reflects poorly on our communities and does not represent who we are as Kansans.”

What’s next in the Legislature

Corson said he was told there would be a hearing on his bill in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee on Thursday, but “then the chair decided to have a hearing on a different topic.” He said he wasn’t sure now whether the bill would get a hearing.

“I don’t think anybody is opposed to the bill, it is just, we’re at the beginning of the new session where these committees are just flooded with bills,” he said. “I don’t think Chairman Thompson is opposed to it, but I don’t know that it is necessarily top of his list.”

Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican and the committee chairman, told The Star that the committee “had to adjust our schedule, and may need to make additional changes as well.”

“As you may know, the Fed and State committee gets a lot of bills so we are constantly determining which bills we need to run, and the time we have to deal with them,” he said in an email. “I can’t say yet whether we will get back to SB77 or not.”

Thompson did not respond to a question about whether he supported the measure.

Xu said he expects to have a hearing on his bill, but one has not yet been scheduled.

Like the bills’ sponsors, Moody said he hasn’t heard any opposition to the proposals. Other cities and organizations have been supportive, he said, including Overland Park, Lawrence, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, and the League of Kansas Municipalities.

“I don’t see a reason for it not to be approved, but I do recognize that there are a lot of bills that the Kansas Legislature is faced with each session,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get a hearing and get it to move.”

Racist covenants in Missouri

Missouri has struggled with the issue in recent years as well.

In 2020, then-Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced that he had resolved lawsuits against two Kansas City-area homes associations that failed to remove racist language from their governing documents when notified.

Schmitt, now a U.S. senator, dismissed the suits after receiving confirmation that Country Club Homes and Crestwood Club Homes Association had removed the racially restrictive covenants, including a Country Club provision stating that “None of said lots during aforesaid period shall be conveyed to, owned, used nor occupied by negroes as owners or tenants.”

“There should be no place whatsoever in our society for racially restrictive covenants, so I am very pleased we were able to achieve this resolution,” Schmitt said in a statement.

The Attorney General’s Office had contacted a number of Kansas-City area HOAs to notify them that racist language in their governing documents rendered them illegal. Schmitt filed suit against Country Club Homes and Crestwood Club Homes Association, saying neither association responded to his office’s warnings.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, Crestwood Club Homes Association removed the racist language from its covenants four days after Schmitt filed suit. Country Club Homes, the AG said, took nearly two months to comply.