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Kansas City Social Studies Teachers Find Lessons On Racism And Other Tough Topics At Area Museums

The Sewings were one of the first African-American Families to guy a house in Johnson County.
Johnson County Museum
In 1970, the Sewings were one of the first African-American Families to buy a house in Johnson County.

Future social studies students will be introduced to 2020 as the year of coronavirus, distance learning, civil unrest and a tense U.S. election. Some teachers think it's the perfect time to shake up classes of the present with a new project.

Called The Learning Collaborative, the project aims to add value to social studies lesson plans with resources from area museums.

“When the teachers came to us, they said, ‘Our students will want to talk about the social issues they’re seeing. They’ll want to talk about the different experiences of COVID based on race. They’re going to want to talk about George Floyd’s murder,” Mary McMurray says.

McMurray is the director of the Johnson County Museum and has worked toward the new collaborative from its early stages as the Kansas City Social Studies Consortium in 2015. The idea is that when classroom educators partner with museum educators, they will create locally anchored lesson plans for students — and the lessons will not only make more sense but will stick.

“How do we handle issues of systemic racism in the classroom?” teachers asked McMurray. “That’s a complicated question for a teacher to ask," she said. "But I immediately said, ‘Andrew, the redlining map.’”

Andrew Gustafson explains redlining with a 1939 federal map.
Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
Andrew Gustafson explains redlining with a 1939 federal map.

Andrew Gustafson is the museum’s curator of interpretation. He stands before a 1939 map of Kansas City — one of 239 city maps created by the Federal Housing Authority. He explains the materials he and McMurray have put together for The Learning Collaborative.

At the heart of the Johnson County Museum is the story of suburbanization. And to understand suburbs — where so many Kansas City students live — one must understand redlining.

Gustafson tells about how the federal government’s partnership with the private banking industry to put more people in houses across the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s led to the suburbs. He tells about how a government neighborhood grading process helped banks decide which parts of town they should invest in by approving mortgages.

“Blue and green were the safest bets that were going to maintain or increase in value; yellow was probably going to maintain or decrease,” Gustafson says.

He traces Troost with his finger.

“The divide was already there, but this really codifies it at a federal policy level,” Gustafson says. He goes on to explain white flight from areas like Hyde Park —residents saw the color code and fled for fear of being unable to sell their houses later.

McMurray says teachers will ask their students: “How is your world still shaped by this map from 1939?”

This 1939 Kansas City security map shows how the Federal Housing Administration and private banks divided the city into "good" and "bad" investments.
National Archives and Records Administration
This 1939 Kansas City security map shows how the Federal Housing Administration and private banks divided the city into "good" and "bad" investments.

Emily Wegner, a social studies curriculum specialist for the Lee's Summit School District, was the driving force behind the new collaborative. She began a social studies consortium five years ago in which area teachers met to discuss and brainstorm best practices. By 2017, she’d started a professional development series in partnership with the Jackson County Historical Society.

Then, more recently, a historian and civic education activist who founded an educational initiative called Got History? became involved. Fernande Raine lives in Boston and had a chance meeting with someone from the Kauffman Foundation at a luncheon there.

The Kauffman Foundation was an early sponsor of Wegner’s consortium and invited Raine to Kansas City so the two women could meet.

Their new collaborative, which they intend to spread nationwide, launched with the start of the 2020-2021 school year with a pilot program at a Lee’s Summit high school. Resources like Gustafson’s redlining lesson are available through The Learning Collaborative website and the Civic Learning Collaborative on Mighty Network.

Wegner says it’s easier now to list the Kansas City museums that are not involved than those that are; the Johnson County Museum is one of many, including the Truman Presidential Library and Museum, the Kemper Museum, the Dole Institute of Politics, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

As the network of museum and classroom educators strengthens, Wegner says a teacher will be able to say: “‘I need a resource that tells me this.’ And rather than spending hours and hours trying to Google it to find that perfect thing, the museum says, ‘Oh, I’ve got something for that,’ and they just hand it over.”

The work that educators have put into The Learning Collaborative is ultimately about making the world a better place by taking the time to deeply study it, says McMurray.

“How can you understand Johnson County, who gets to live where, why there are certain areas that are high dollar and relatively exclusively white even today?” she asks. “Well, for us, all the answers are in the past.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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