The Country Club Plaza has a long and storied history for Kansas Citians. Some view the shopping district as the jewel of the city; others see it as a symbol of division and racism.
For some Black business owners, the Plaza represents an opportunity to reach untapped potential for their businesses and show future generations that equality can exist. But that optimism wasn’t always there. Kansas City’s prized shopping and entertainment district has a racist past dating back to its creation and founder.
J.C. Nichols, the creator of the shopping district, began planning the district and surrounding neighborhoods in 1922. The Country Club Plaza was heralded by many for its detailed Spanish architecture. Visitors came from all over the country to visit and shop in the district that combined high-end shopping with entertainment and fine cuisine. While Nichols created a lasting shopping and entertainment destination, he also created another lasting legacy – redlining.
Nichols wrote restrictive covenants and deeds keeping Black, Jewish, and low-income people out of his highly desirable neighborhoods surrounding the Plaza. This effectively made it so Black residents could only live east of Troost Avenue, creating a de facto color line in the city.
While White Kansas Citians were able to build wealth around the rising property values in Nichols’ neighborhoods, Black families lost equity as their homes on the east side depreciated over time. To this day, property values continue to be lower on the east side compared to the rest of the city.
Now 100 years old, the Country Club Plaza has seen Kansas City change and neighborhoods transform around it. The symbolism of the Plaza itself – once seen as a place where only certain people could shop and congregate – is now seeing more representation of people of color.
In 2020, The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department removed Nichol’s name from the historic fountain at Mill Creek Park near the Plaza, and a petition to change the name of the road running through the Plaza also garnered attention from city residents.
The Nichols family said in 2020 it stands behind the name change if it’s in an effort to unify the city.
“It is important to each of us that we publicly endorse the name change for the greater good of the City we love,” Kay Callison, granddaughter of Nichols, said.
For three Black entrepreneurs, opening up shop on the Country Club Plaza was something they viewed as an opportunity to create a new discussion and reach more Kansas Citians like themselves.
Of the more than 100 retail stores and restaurants on Country Club Plaza, only two are Black-owned and local. The surrounding neighborhoods and restaurants continue to be predominately White, but that is slowly changing.
Tynesha ‘Ty’ Matches, is the owner of Matches Boutique, a small clothing store that specializes in women’s fashion and shoes. Matches grew up east of Troost Avenue and said she remembers hearing from older people about the division in the city and what the Plaza represented to African-Americans who were not welcomed.
Matches Boutique, sits at 320 Nichols Road, across from national chain LuLu Lemon – prime real estate for a small, local business.
After finding success with her online business and exploring pop-up shops around the city, including on the Plaza. In 2020, she made the decision to lease property on the Plaza and open her own store.
“I can tell you, for me and my community, it was groundbreaking,” Matches said. “Just because knowing about, ‘the clause’ from J.C. Nichols. I just received a lot of feedback and a lot of positive support from others, like people that come into the store and thought they would never see the day, but they have now.”
Matches said that the support from other small business owners has been overwhelming as well, regardless of skin color.
“I feel like I’m supported, I feel like regardless of race people have been really supportive overall,” Matches said.
“Everything is changing,” she added, “and even if I’m not down here (on the Plaza), I hope someone else comes in and continues the change.”
Tameca Williams shares a similar sentiment.
Williams is the owner of SugahRush Berries, a dessert shop located at 4745 Central St., also on the Plaza.
Williams said as a Black woman and small business owner, she knows the example she is setting will be noticed when others look back one day.
“I try to always provide positivity and try to do the right thing and stay on task so that they can watch and follow in my footsteps. Because I know that eventually there will be equality,” Williams said.
SugahRush Berries opened its Plaza location last year after finding success at another location in Oak Park Mall. Williams said she grew up in a low-income area of Kansas City, KS. She is the first business owner in her family, something she is proud no one can take away from her.
“Where I’m from, we’re not pushed to be entrepreneurs and earn our own money. We’re taught to be workers, for somebody else’s business,” Williams said. “So it’s absolutely a dream for me.”
The opportunity to continue to grow her business and get more recognition was the main motivation for her expansion to the Plaza, but it has not come without hurdles along the way.
“As a Black woman and a business owner and of course, everyone knows the history of the Plaza, it was hard,” Williams said. “But I have to give myself a pat on the back for overcoming all of those obstacles. I’m here, and I’m representing that we can do what the next person can do, no matter what the color of our skin is.”
Way ahead of the pack, In 2015 Isaac Collins opened Yogurtini, a frozen yogurt shop, a few blocks south of the shopping district in South Plaza at 4853 Main St. While many businesses have come and gone at The Plaza, Yogurtini has maintained its presence in the area.
Collins said he’s seen the Country Club Plaza change in the time he’s been in the area, but it wasn’t until recent years that he learned the gravity redlining had caused in the area.
“I lived here, but I didn’t really know about it (redlining) or J.C. Nichols,” Collins said. “I didn’t really find out about all that until all the racial injustice stuff happened with George Floyd,”
Collins said early on he received the occasional question about what he, a Black business owner, was doing on the Plaza, but he didn’t let that deter him. In fact, he views his part in the change in representation with pride.
“Now you have other Black establishments coming down there and so that’s really, really cool that that’s happening slowly. It feels like it’s becoming more of a norm,” Collins said. “I love that there is more culture and diversity in a place that has been objectively White – forever.”