SCOTUS 101: Closing Down Covenants | HistoryNet MENU
Ethel Shelley reads a May 4, 1948 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about the Supreme Court decision outlawing racial covenants. Courtesy St. Louis Post-Dispatch

SCOTUS 101: Closing Down Covenants

By Daniel B. Moskowitz
June 2018 • American History magazine

SHELLEY V. KRAEMER, 334 US1 (1948)—RESTRICTIVE REAL ESTATE COVENANTS

An unassuming brick house at 4600 Labadie Avenue in the Greater Ville section of St. Louis bears a plaque identifying the premises as a National Historical Landmark. A modest duplex with a small front yard and a shed roof sheltering the twin front doors—one leading to the main-floor living quarters, the other to a second-floor apartment—4600 Labadie was home base in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that not only stymied those trying to use provisions in real estate deeds to keep neighborhoods white, but also forced Americans to rethink the very concept of neighborhood.

All this stemmed from an African-American family buying 4600 Labadie and, on September 11, 1945, moving in. That evening J.D. and Ethel Lee Shelley were served with court papers

The house at 4600 Labadie Ave. still stands, 70 years after the historic court decision.

demanding that they get out because when Greater Ville first was developed in 1900-10, all deeds specified that “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” could not live there. Fern Kraemer, whose name, along with her husband’s, was at the top of the legal complaint, was the daughter of a woman who had signed the original discriminatory agreement in 1911. The dispute over whether the Kraemers and their neighbors could use that provision to force the Shelleys out became a legal landmark.

J.D. and Ethel had married in their early teens in rural Mississippi. Seeking opportunities, they moved to St. Louis. During the war he worked at a bullet factory and she at a child care facility, living on his pay and saving hers. “I wanted to buy a new car,” J.D. said. “My wife, she says, ‘J.D., no! What we’ll do, we’ll take what money we got and buy us a home.’ I talked to my supervisor the next day when I got to work and he say, ‘Shelley, you know what? Your wife is right.’”

Easier said than done. Amid a nationwide war-related housing shortage, much residential property for sale in St. Louis was barred to African-Americans because prevailing social norms had led to the insertion into deeds of covenants forbidding such sales. However, Robert Bishop, the Shelleys’ minister and also an African-American, was a real estate broker. He saw 4600 Labadie as a good choice because the couple could live downstairs and rent the upstairs to help pay the mortgage. Bishop used a white woman, Geraldine Fitzgerald, as a front to buy the house on his behalf, then sold the property to the Shelleys. Including Bishop’s profit, the couple paid $5,700.

The kind of covenant forbidding sale of 4600 Labadie Avenue to Americans of African or Asian descent—or, in other cases, to Catholics or to Jews—was an American commonplace in the 1940s. Covenants covered 80 percent of residential property in Chicago and Los Angeles. When the question of the stipulations’ validity reached the Supreme Court, three of the nine justices had to sit out the case because they owned properties saddled with restrictive covenants.

Use of such covenants was spurred unintentionally by a 1917 Supreme Court decision. Buchanan v. Warley struck down local laws banning sales of houses on predominantly white blocks to buyers of other races. Such ordinances, the justices said, violated the 14th Amendment proscription that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” No longer able to use the law to maintain residential segregation, homeowners and developers embraced deed restrictions. As private agreements, they were exempt from the 14th Amendment.

But with World War II supposedly being fought on behalf of worldwide freedom, the United States experienced a growing reappraisal of the treatment accorded minorities, especially blacks. Americans began to question the assumption that someone should be able to live among only “the right people.” African-Americans more aggressively sought equality. The Shelleys enlisted the St. Louis Real Estate Brokers Association, a group of African-American businessmen, to argue that blacks could not be thrown out of their homes, covenant or no covenant. Around the country, other black home buyers were challenging covenants in court. The justices used Shelley v. Kraemer to address the legal questions, but on the same day they handed down that decision they ruled on three similar cases, with many more moving through the legal system.

Even many to whom covenants did not apply began to question the restrictions’ premise and their harm to African-Americans’ access to the American dream. President Harry S. Truman had set up a Committee on Civil Rights. In an October 1947 report, that panel highlighted a “pervasive” gap between American ideals and American race relations. Among that body’s suggestions: end racial real estate covenants. When the Shelleys’ case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Protestant Council of the City of New York, the Council of Industrial Organizations, and allies filed briefs supporting the couple. More significantly, although the dispute involved private parties, the federal government not only filed a brief on behalf of the Shelleys but actually participated in the plaintiffs’ oral argument before the justices—the first time the Justice Department had intervened in a civil rights case involving private parties.

Lawyers for the white homeowners seeking to uphold covenants argued that private individuals had the right to sign whatever contracts they wished. The justices agreed, and the opinion, by Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, specifically declared that such restrictive covenants were not covered by the 14th Amendment and were therefore legal. But that was far from the end of the matter. Encumbering deeds with covenants was one thing; enforcing covenants was quite another. If disputed in court, covenants necessarily would engage the states—or their subsidiary counties or cities—whose courts were bound by the 14th Amendment to do nothing that limits the rights of any particular group of citizens. That seemed so clear to the justices that their initial conference after hearing oral arguments raced by, since every justice immediately said he sided with the Shelleys and other African-American home buyers.

The court could have ruled narrowly. The St. Louis trial court that first heard the Shelleys’ case simply declared the offending covenant invalid because not every Greater Ville homeowner had signed onto the restriction. Instead, all six justices hearing the case wanted a sweeping declaration that enforcement by any court of restrictive covenants constituted “state action” and therefore was unconstitutional.

The decision in Shelley v. Kraemer clearly indicated the times were changing, but the ruling hardly ended residential segregation. Banking and real estate practices still fostered apartheid, and it was not until the Fair Housing Act of 1968—passed six days after the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr.—that racial, religious, and sex discrimination in real estate transactions was outlawed. None of which shrinks the import of the Shelleys’ victory.

“We lived in that house on Labadie for maybe ten years,” J.D. Shelley said. “The way I see it, it was a good thing that we done this case. We was the first ones to live where they said colored couldn’t live.” 

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