Johnson County Museum’s Redlined exhibit examines the effects of America’s racist past

The main entrance to the Johnson County Museum’s Redlined exhibit. // Photo by Michael Cripe

The Johnson County Museum’s latest special exhibit, Redlined, offers an in-depth analysis of a 90-year-old racist practice and how it still affects the citizens of Kansas today.

As defined on the museum’s website, redlining is the “systematic disinvestment from certain neighborhoods and populations in favor of others, most often on the basis of race.” It’s a practice that began in the 1930s and led to the separation of black neighborhoods by structures, such as highways, as the federal government openly sought to promote home ownership exclusively for whites.

Redlining was eventually “prohibited” via the Fair Housing Act of 1968. However, the effects of this oppressive system of neighborhood structuring were already set in stone. Redlined makes it clear: “African Americans and other people of color have been intentionally excluded from the American Dream.”

That’s what redlining is, but how did it start? How has it evolved? What can we do to fight it now? The answers to these questions are the insights that Redlined seeks to explore and convey to its audience.

Interpretation curator Andrew R. Gustafson spends most of his time researching, writing, and installing special exhibits at the Johnson County Museum.

“We’ve been talking about redlining and segregation and fighting those systems in our main show for a decade or more,” Gustafson says. “We really wanted to dig into this because it’s so central to understanding how Johnson County as a suburban community has developed.”

Gustafson, who served as a project manager for Redlined, began researching the topic of redlining about two years ago. For him and the rest of the team that worked on the project, Redlined had to be done the right way, not the easiest way.

“We got to a point where we thought if we made any more cuts we would lose really important parts of the story, and how could we, as recognized staff of all white individuals, take this guy decisions,” says Gustafson.

A draft script was sent to people like Carmaletta Williams, CEO of the Black Archives of Mid-America, for peer review. The Johnson County Museum has also sought input from the Johnson County Voices of Inclusion, Belonging and Equity (VIBE) Committee.

Additionally, the Redlined team contacted approximately 24 educational institutions, including museums, universities, libraries, etc., to encourage them to offer similar programming to their audiences. Gustafson hopes the work will lead to a broader discussion around the topic of redlining.

As text-dense as Redlined is, it doesn’t forget its place as a visual experience. Between cleverly presented information and topical backdrops are striking artwork from the African American Artists Collective (AAAC).

Redlined offers a lens to view Kansas City as one piece of a current puzzle. Redlining used to be a national practice, but its effects can be seen just outside your window.

“The exhibit offers a chance to see very local history in a national context,” Gustafson said. “It’s possible to look at this national map which shows all the cities that have redlining maps created for them. But there are also opportunities to look at the Kansas City regional map and find your home and find your block Watching today’s headlines and thinking about your life and how those headlines may or may not affect you, and why or why aren’t they affecting you?”

The research and collaboration resulted in an 85-page article, which was edited into a 45-page script that was then spread out to create the exhibit that exists today at the Johnson County Museum.

Johnson County Museum director and historian Mary McMurray says Redlined’s message is crucial for those hoping to better understand the history around us. However, the staff has included a number of resources on its website for those who may not be able to attend the exhibit in person.

“Our dream for the museum is to spark interest in any part of our history and leave people inspired to learn more,” McMurray says.

Redlined is available through January 7, 2023. Adult tickets start at $6. However, the Johnson County Museum will soon host several “free days” where everyone is welcome to visit for free. The 2022 free days currently scheduled are June 11, September 17 and November 23.

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