“Opinion The Chiefs proudly broke racial barriers. Kansas City erected them.
February 9, 2023 at 8:00 a.m. EST
Mark Dent is the co-author of the forthcoming “Kingdom Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs, and How a Once-Swingin’ Cow Town Chased the Ultimate Comeback.”
When Mike Garrett, a Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Southern California, was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1966, the only thing he knew about his new home was the song.
The city surprised him. The 12th Street and Vine jazz district praised by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in “Kansas City” was floundering, but the Country Club Plaza — a Spanish-influenced medley of department stores, boutiques, restaurants and luxury apartments that is the city’s equivalent of Georgetown — seemed like a great place to live.
Garrett was turned down at every open apartment he visited.
The Chiefs, who play the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in a Super Bowl featuring two Black starting quarterbacks for the first time, have a proud legacy of elevating Black talent. The franchise’s early teams were stocked with overlooked stars from historically Black colleges and universities. Lamar Hunt, the team’s owner, saw the NFL’s racial biases as a market inefficiency to exploit.
But the city wasn’t nearly as hospitable. Black players such as Garrett struggled to find housing in a metro area that was among the most redlined in the country.
No place epitomized segregation like the Country Club District. In the first half of the 20th century, developer J.C. Nichols built a wonderland of posh homes, tree-lined vistas and cul-de-sacs that spanned more than 5,000 acres, emanating from the middle of Kansas City, Mo., into Kansas, where he planned several more suburban communities. “If Webster was asked to provide another synonym for city planning,” wrote one New York City journalist in 1925, “his answer would be Jesse Clyde Nichols, Kansas City, Mo.”
Restrictive covenants were key to Nichols’s neighborhoods. He legally bound entire subdivisions to ban Black people from buying homes. To ensure no one broke the covenants, he created homeowners associations to enforce the rules. Nichols wasn’t the first person to use these innovations, but he was the first to apply them over such a large area in a systematic fashion, and he spread his techniques across the country as an influential member of various real estate trade groups.
The story of Nichols and Kansas City’s extreme segregation, exemplified by a de facto dividing line at Troost Avenue, have become an increasingly discussed subject among residents over the past decade. What is less known is how those policies were applied to Kansas City’s emblem of pioneering equality in the NFL: the Chiefs.
When the American Football League’s Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs for the 1963 season, the team’s Black players discovered Kansas City’s segregation patterns applied to them. In August of that year, running back Curtis McClinton, the son of a prominent Kansas legislator, enthralled Kansas City fans by scoring the team’s first home touchdown on a 73-yard run during the preseason. He lived in a Kansas City basement apartment he rented for $7 a week.
It wasn’t any better in the suburbs. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell says he looked at more than 200 houses for his family in the mid-1960s, getting denied by realtors and bankers who refused to underwrite his mortgage. Head coach Hank Stram, who was White and lived in the Nichols-planned suburb Prairie Village, Kan., made calls on Bell’s behalf to no avail. “You couldn’t do anything,” Bell said. “They didn’t want to take you.”
The discrimination diminished the team’s roster. After Kansas Jayhawks running back Gale Sayers, another future Hall of Famer, was drafted by the AFL’s Chiefs in 1965, he chose to play for the NFL’s Chicago Bears instead. “He knew Kansas City,” McClinton said at the time. “He knew what the housing situation was.”
McClinton, with the financial backing of Bell and other teammates, proposed an integrated apartment complex that featured central air conditioning and a pool shaped like a football. The city council denied the plan over zoning issues.
He pushed on, starting a branch of Jim Brown’s Black Economic Union to promote business opportunities for Black Kansas Citians and joining Freedom Inc., a local civil rights group, to push for housing reform. The activists’ work culminated in Kansas City passing a fair-housing ordinance that forbade racial discrimination in July 1967, six months after the Chiefs played in the first Super Bowl.
Garrett believes the Chiefs’ success helped improve the city’s race relations. When he looked at the Plaza again in 1968, he got an apartment.
Similar laws came to the suburbs. Bell eventually bought a house in Prairie Village in 1968, after a White man purchased it and rented to Bell until he could find a willing mortgage underwriter. Shortly after Bell moved in, a White neighbor showed up at his door with a flier organizing a protest against him. Bell was undeterred: He stayed at the house and, soon, other Black teammates moved nearby. After the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in 1970, the mayor of Prairie Village gave him a key to the city.
Decades later, the racial dividing line of Troost Avenue has blurred in certain neighborhoods, the suburbs have started to diversify, and residents pushed for the removal of Nichols’s name from a prominent fountain and street by the Plaza in 2020. After working as the athletic director at USC, Garrett moved back to Kansas City a few years ago — and into a J.C. Nichols neighborhood.
Yet Kansas City is also seeing the displacement of working-class and Black residents as rents increase in long-neglected neighborhoods that still have limited economic opportunities. The Chiefs, even with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, can’t fix all of the city’s deep-rooted problems. Still, the team — and especially Mahomes — is a balm. No matter the neighborhood, red-and-gold flags abound. So do No. 15 jerseys.
In the 1960s and ’70s, when Kansas City thrilled to the Chiefs’ first Super Bowl teams, the city was split on its favorite player, one longtime Kansas Citian told me. Most White Kansas City fans tended to favor quarterback Len Dawson, and most Black fans favored wide receiver Otis Taylor. Now, Mahomes is almost everyone’s favorite.
“His presence makes us more tolerant of one another,” the longtime resident, who is Black, said, “more accepting of one another, more likely to engage in conversation with one another that can have some meaningful results.”
Especially if the Chiefs keep winning.“
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