Webinar: History Check-In: Civil Rights and Place

Civil Rights and Place: The Importance of Region to Interpreting the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s-60s

The civil rights movement of the mid-to-late twentieth century remains a focus of popular fascination, yet few audiences are aware of the wide-ranging goals, participations, and gThis presentation argues that the "classic," post-World War II civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s encompassed local communities outside the regional South -- contrary to standard depictions of mid-century black social movements. Further, this presentation discusses how the forms of both white racism and black resistance differed based on the regional battlegrounds of the Midwest, Northeast, West Coast, and Border South. This webinar is part of the History Check-In webinar series, a partnership between the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Each webinar in this series is designed to provide history professionals from throughout the field with an update on the current state of historiography for a particular subject.


DATE: October 10, 2019

TIME: 3:00 - 4:15 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $20 Members of AASLH and OAH (OAH members should contact OAH for a discount code) / $30 Non-members



Clarence Lang is Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, and Professor of African American Studies, at the Pennsylvania State University. A scholar in African American urban and social movement history, he is the author of two books: Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75; and Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics. In addition, he is the co-editor of two volumes: Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement: “Another Side of the Story” (with Robbie Lieberman); and Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph (with Andrew Kersten). An Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, he has published articles and essays in Journal of African American History, Journal of Urban History, Journal of Social History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, The Black Scholar, American Studies Journal, Critical Sociology, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dean Lang received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Conference Context: White Flight and Civil Rights in Johnson County, Kansas

Conference Context is a blog series discussing local history and contemporary topics in our next Annual Meeting destination: Kansas City, Missouri. We hope this series provides insight into the complex history and issues of this and future host cities so readers have the background to better understand and explore the perspectives and challenges of local historical institutions during the conference.

By Andrew R. Gustafson, Curator of Interpretation, Johnson County Museum

An example of a “redlining” map from Kansas City, ca. 1939. Courtesy of the National Archives and Record Administration.

This year’s AASLH Annual Meeting theme, “Truth or Consequences,” has special relevance in Johnson County, Kansas, the county bordering western Kansas City, Missouri. The relationship between Kansas City and Johnson County is long and complex, full of mutual benefit and a fair dose of competition. What one does inevitably affects the other. In the twentieth century, the intertwined history of housing policy and civil rights in Kansas City drove the suburban development of northeastern Johnson County.

During the Great Depression, the U.S. government enacted policies, such as the Federal Housing Act (FHA), to help Americans secure and maintain home mortgages. In the process of getting the mortgage industry on the “same page” across the nation, realtors and banks developed maps that labeled neighborhoods with four distinct, hierarchical grades. “Redlining” practices determined “favorable” neighborhoods, in which residents seeking a mortgage could obtain one, versus “undesirable” neighborhoods, in which mortgages were deemed un-insurable. These neighborhoods were outlined in red. With many aging neighborhoods in its city limits, Kansas City’s redlined areas increased. Homes within the redlined areas fell into disrepair and often were converted from single-family homes into multi-family apartments. Unable to secure mortgages in these areas, many white Kansas Citians moved to younger southern neighborhoods, or to new suburban developments in northeastern Johnson County. The redlined neighborhoods were left to African American populations as housing prices fell. “White flight,” as this movement has been called, from Kansas City’s redlined urban areas was one of the prime causes of Johnson County’s suburban development.

Following WWII, northeastern Johnson County suburban developments were built for exclusively white residents. Deed restrictions, sometimes called covenants, prohibited African Americans, Jews, and others deemed non-white, from legally purchasing or renting the property. This practice was used extensively during the 1920s by Kansas City community planner J.C. Nichols, the developer of Country Club Plaza, many of the wealthy neighborhoods along Ward Parkway, and the country clubs hugging State Line Road. Fearing that redlining might someday be applied to his developments, Nichols ensured that the neighborhoods would remain residential and white by using deed restrictions. Nichols’s housing policies and his founding role in the Urban Land Institute influenced developers across the nation.

In 1966, Donald Sewing, an African American realtor from Kansas City, Kansas, and his family moved into a home in Fairway, Kansas. The Sewings were the first black family in this city. Over the next five years, Sewing sold homes across the area to African American families, using what he called the “scatter” approach to increase contact between African American and white families but decrease the possibility of “blockbusting”—the fleeing of white neighbors after black families arrived. By 1971, Sewing assisted sixty black families with purchasing a new home in a suburban development.

At the same time, the Olathe Urban Renewal Project (OURP) began in 1967. Implemented across the nation, urban renewal projects sought to modernize communities, but the improvements often fractured communities of color. With the aim of creating a newer downtown, the OURP also wanted to remove the blighted, predominantly African American community of Fairview, and replace it with modern homes. Many Fairview residents worried that they would not be able to afford the new homes and thus be forced to move.

Joe Person and family. Courtesy of Johnson County Museum.

Ruth Shechter, a white equal housing proponent in the county, teamed with Joe Person of the Fairview Neighborhood Council to create the non-profit Homes Evaluation and Rehabilitation (H.E.R.E.). This organization bought homes deemed “sub-standard” by the OURP, made the needed repairs to the structures, and sold them back to the original owners with low-interest, long-term FHA loans. Person, a WWII veteran and respected member of the Fairview community, had the difficult role of mediating between his neighbors and the OURP. He was able to convince Fairview residents to approve the project, but in an ironic twist, was prohibited from participating in the program himself because of his involvement in the OURP. Ultimately, the Persons were one of thirty-three African American families forced to move, priced out of the new neighborhood that Person himself helped to facilitate.

These policies, events, and issues have shaped Johnson County’s development and its perception by non-residents even today. Often perceived as the white suburb that it was nearly sixty years ago, Johnson County, although more diverse today, continues to struggle with inclusion, representation, and housing discrimination. Kansas City, too, has been shaped by its racial past, and continues to contend with the “Troost Wall,” a racial barrier that developed along Troost Avenue, the western boundary of many of the redlined neighborhoods. The history of suburbanization in Johnson County is complex and its legacy long-lasting. The Johnson County Museum includes this history in its exhibits, not only to inform visitors about often-overlooked narratives, but to start dialogues within the community about what a future with more diversity looks like. The theme “Truth or Consequences” perfectly describes the inclusion of these important stories in the Johnson County Museum’s Becoming Johnson County exhibit.

Learn more:

"Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America"

"Suburban Pioneers"

Annual Meeting tour: "Johnson County History: From Settlement to Suburbs," Wednesday, September 26

Annual Meeting Evening Event: "Suburbia Unleashed" at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, Wednesday, September 26

Annual Meeting tour: "The Story of Segregation in Kansas City," Friday, September 28

Annual Meeting session: "The Truth About Troost: The Consequences of Engaging Diverse Students in Conversations about Race Based on Local History," Friday, September 28

Playing With History: The New Civil Rights Era American Girl Doll

© American Girl/Mattel
© American Girl/Mattel

Last week, American Girl (AASLH members since 1996) announced their latest character and story collection that will debut this summer. In honor of Black History Month and the company's 30th anniversary, the newest doll is Melody Ellison, a nine-year-old African-American girl living in Detroit during the 1960s. Her stories, written by Denise Lewis Patrick, will focus largely on the Civil Rights Movement and how Melody experiences this tumultuous time through the eyes of a young girl.

Melody's story and development, like all American Girl dolls, involved thorough historical research and consultation with an advisory board; in Melody's case, the board included the late Civil Rights activist Julian Bond. She is the company's third African-American historical doll, and, in my opinion, represents an exciting new chapter in American Girl's mission of presenting thoughtful and accessible history to children. Check out this video about Melody's development:



As a lifelong fan of American Girl and historical fiction, I was thrilled to hear this announcement. And as a public historian who loves to see history in the hands of children, I was even more excited. The American Girl stories and dolls, along with other series and toys, formed a large part of my early interest in history. This franchise was everywhere beginning in the early 1990s, and brought history to life for kids through dolls with an impressive array of accessories (reproduction artifacts in their own right, ranging from clothes to furniture to models of period-accurate food), as well as through the stories, a magazine, and eventually made- for-television movies. American Girl was extremely popular with millenial girls across the country, and I was no exception. I loved reading about the different historical characters and imagining the worlds they lived in, and the books combined great stories with history lessons that kids could understand and relate to.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that my early experiences learning about history with American Girl ultimately helped lead me to history as a profession. And I'm not alone: in an article from earlier this year, Whitney Thornberry, a Sites Interpreter for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, describes our cohort of historians who were inspired as children to love history through books and toys,  as "the Felicity Generation."

Felicity was one of the first dolls produced by American Girl in the early '90s, and her story depicted a colonial shopkeeper's daughter caught up the Revolutionary War as it played out in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Felicity stories were so popular among children that Colonial Williamsburg had special programming based on the books for young visitors to enjoy, and girls would often dress up like Felicity and bring their dolls with them into the town. In the article, Thornberry connects her childhood love of American Girl with her lifelong passion for history and ultimately her decision to live her dream as an interpreter (and resident) of the historic city that Felicity called home. And she's in good company -- check out this photo of Colonial Williamsburg staff members and their dolls.

© Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
© Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

I'm excited to see where the Melody story goes, and how this character can help bring historical awareness and empathy to a new generation that faces a diminishing appreciation of history as well as a serious lack of diversity in toys and media representations. I hope Melody inspires her readers and playmates to consider complex recent history in a way they can identify with, and most of all, I hope she inspires future generations of historians to pursue their childhood dreams.

Aja Bain is Program Coordinator at AASLH. She can be reached at [email protected] or (615) 320-3203.