For several years, Johnson County Library has offered an audio driving app called the “Dividing Lines Tour.” It highlights the history of segregation in Kansas City and sheds light on the governmental policies and individual actions which decimated Black neighborhoods all over the United States.
The downloadable audio tour takes participants from Shawnee Mission East High in Johnson County to Kansas City’s urban core. Thousands of local students and residents have traveled that journey for a revealing visual history lesson.
Now, the Library is offering a virtual version that can be experienced by anyone online. It not only explains the past but illuminates the present.
It is the story of how residential segregation and the racial wealth gap didn’t just happen but resulted from real estate practices and discriminatory government policies, pioneered in Kansas City and Johnson County, and replicated throughout the United States.
“The story of our city is a mirror to the stories of every other major city,” said Johnson County Library Youth Services Manager Angel Tucker, who helped spearhead the Dividing Lines tour. “It helps us understand stark inequities and why our neighborhoods look the way they do.”
The narrative reveals the national influence of Kansas City real estate magnate J.C. Nichols, who championed racially restrictive housing covenants that excluded Blacks. The video explores block busting abuses, redlining loan maps, and heroic struggles for equality, through the eloquent voices of lawyer/activist Sidney Willens and neighborhood advocates Mamie Hughes and Margaret May. It shares student perspectives from both Shawnee Mission East and Central High in Kansas City.
This information often isn’t in history books and is a revelation for most people, Tucker said. “It reveals a history that connects to our present,” she said. “If we can all unpack this history, maybe other cities can as well.”
Johnson County Library first offered student bus tours for its Race Project KC program, explaining landmarks along the way. Church and community groups sought out the experience, leading the Library to create the audio driving app. Local History Librarian Amanda Wahlmeier and Civic Engagement Librarian Ashley Fick provided crucial research.
The Library partnered with Christopher Cook and Nathaniel Bozarth, longtime partners on social justice multimedia projects at Brainroot Light & Sound. Cook served as writer/producer and videographer. Bozarth was a writer/producer and also narrated.
The driving app was highly praised locally, but when the COVID shutdowns began in March 2020, it galvanized the Library to create an online video version.
“When the pandemic hit, we knew we were not going to be able to put students on buses,” Tucker recalled. “We went to Chris and Nathaniel and asked, can we create a virtual experience that captures this online?” That’s just what happened.
The virtual program consists of three 30-minute segments, and has already had several thousand views. It includes archival documents and news updates not in the original driving tour.
Cook and Bozarth said this ongoing collaboration with the Library has been hugely rewarding.
“With Nathaniel and I having such an interest in social justice story-telling, it felt like an artistic commission more than just a standard client,” Cook said. “We feel a lot of personal pride and creative ownership in it.”
Bozarth agreed. “For me as a creative and as someone engaged in anti-racism activities, the story of Kansas City is representative of stories like it all over the county,” he said. “Taking this local tour, presenting it in a way that can be consumed by people all over the country held enormous hope for me. It’s for a much larger audience, applicable anywhere.”