Shelley House, 4600 Labadie Avenue, St. Louis, MO|
Photograph by Gerald L. Gilleard
On this day in 1948, the Supreme Court decided in Shelley v. Kraemer, that courts could not enforce racial covenants on real estate. The Supreme Court had previously upheld the legality of racially restrictive convents in 1926 in Corrigan v. Buckely, a decision that helped increase racially segregated neighborhoods. Writing in the UC Davis Law Review, Allen Kamp notes that in 1910, 25 percent of blacks lived in areas of under 5 percent black population. By 1934, it was 5 percent.
By restricting buyers and sellers, the ruling also impacted the housing market. In Chicago, the combination of black migration and the Depression in the 1930s created a shortage of housing for blacks and a glut of housing for whites. It as estimated that in 1937 there was 50,000 more black people than units available. Blacks had to pay 20 to 50 percent more for comparable white housing. Meanwhile, the white population was declining, leaving many "white-only" units unrented or sold.
The facts of Shelley involved a white couple, the Kraemers who owned a residence in a Missouri neighborhood governed by a restrictive covenant. That covenant was signed on February 16, 1911 by thirty out of thirty-nine property owners in the neighborhood at the time, and stated that for a term of fifty years no property in the neighborhood could be sold or rented to any black or Asian persons.
On August 11, 1945, the Shelleys ("Petitioners"), who were black, bought a property in the neighborhood from a white couple, the Fitzgeralds, who were either unaware or refused to enforce the restrictive covenant at the time of the purchase. The other owners in the neighborhood sued in the Circuit Court of St. Louis on the basis of the restrictive covenant with the intention of having the Court divest the Petitioners of their newly acquired property and revert title to the Fitzgeralds, or to some other person at the Court’s discretion. The Petitioners eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Count voted 6 votes for Shelley, 0 vote(s) against. The ruling stated that the State courts could not constitutionally prevent the sale of real property to blacks even if that property is covered by a racially restrictive covenant. The report ruled that racially restrictive covenants are not in and of themselves a violation of rights. Their enforcement by the state court, however, constitute state action in violation of the 14th Amendment.
The home of the Shelley's is now a National Historic Landmark. The National Park Service website notes "the Shelley case was a heartening signal for African Americans that positive social change could be achieved through law and the courts."