Shelley v. Kraemer: Legal reform for America’s neighborhoods

Sixty-six years ago last week, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the face of America’s neighborhoods with their decision in Shelley v. Kraemer. The case arose out of a conflict surrounding the sale of a house on the 4600 block of Labadie Avenue, in a quiet residential community in St. Louis.

In 1945, in the 39 homes on Labadie between Taylor Avenue and Cora Avenue, there lived 39 white families. Though houses turned over, as houses do, the community maintained a relatively stable sense of cohesion with little outside pressure and no national attention. And residents liked it that way.

Thurgoodmarshall

Thurgood Marshall

In September of that year, when Louis and Fern Kraemer put their house up for sale, everything changed. The duplex, selling for $5,700, attracted a fair number of potential buyers, including J.D. and Ethel Shelley, a black couple who had moved from Mississippi to Missouri a few years earlier. The Shelleys spoke to Elder Robert Bishop, their pastor at the Church of God in Christ, and learned that he also worked in real estate. Bishop showed the couple the Kraemers’ Labadie Avenue property. They made an offer, and it was accepted. Bishop secured the home on behalf of the Shelleys, placing it in the name of his wife.

Unbeknownst to both the Shelleys and the Kraemers, the home was subject to a restrictive covenant dating back to 1911 that precluded the use of the property by “any person not of the Caucasian race.” According to the deed, “people of the Negro or Mongolian race” were forbidden from using or occupying the property, or contracting to purchase the property, for a period of fifty years after the original covenant had gone into effect.

While neither party wanted to rescind the agreement, the Marcus Avenue Improvement Association, a local homeowners’ group, filed suit in municipal court demanding the contract for sale be terminated. George Vaughan, attorney for the Shelleys, succeeded in convincing the trial court that the restrictive term in the deed was unenforceable. On appeal, though, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision and ordered the couple to vacate the premises. In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, consolidating the Shelleys’ dispute with three others that raised questions of the validity of restrictive covenants. The court sought to determine the scope of an individual’s right to control his or her private property.

At oral argument, NAACP attorneys led by Thurgood Marshall launched a two-pronged legal and policy attack. First, they argued that by enforcing the restrictive covenants, the lower courts were in breach of the due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Though the covenant was part of a private agreement for sale, by upholding or enforcing it, the NAACP argued, the courts were intervening and creating a situation where the state action doctrine would apply.

Second, Marshall and co-counsel Charles Hamilton Houston asserted that it was critical to present a racially just democratic nation to the rest of the world. Playing on the sensibilities of Cold War-era culture and politics, they insisted that restrictive covenants were an example of the failure of the United States to live up to its own promise of equality under the law. These discriminatory stipulations, the attorneys maintained, were both morally wrong and strategically dangerous in a time when projecting a unified, democratic nation was crucial to furthering the country’s anti-Soviet agenda.

As a marker of just how pervasive restrictive covenants had become, three justices were forced to recuse themselves when they learned that their own deeds included such a provision. On January 16, 1948, though, the remaining six justices issued a unanimous opinion vindicating the Shelleys’ struggles.

When news of the Shelley opinion reached the streets, African Americans rejoiced in the victory. “The ruling by the courts gives thousands of prospective home buyers throughout the United States new courage and hope in the American form of government,” Thurgood Marshall exclaimed in an NAACP press release. “Live Anywhere,” proclaimed the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers. Civil rights advocates saw the decision as a green light toward a race-blind, reform-minded agenda, where racial integration could become the practical manifestation of the abstract idea of the American creed.

The first case in American legal history to formally begin to undo the generations of legally prescribed residential segregation in the United States, Shelley v. Kraemer evidenced a tangible shift in the culture of race relations in the country, and it laid the groundwork for a legal strategy toward segregation at the federal level that both activists and courts came to employ in the decades following the Second World War.

But it also positioned housing to become one of the most contested issues in America. The struggle over residential space lay at the center of the nation’s fight for racial justice during the latter half of the 20th century. Middle-class African Americans, capitalizing on new economic opportunities during and after World War II and the legal reforms ushered in with Shelley, were the first time in large numbers escaping the overcrowding of inner-cities and tried to make their homes in previously all-white areas. These swift demographic changes remade neighborhoods into tense battlegrounds.

In some of these transitioning neighborhoods, residents responded with campaigns to “protect” their homes from black infiltration, transforming their blocks into sites of hostility and violence. In other such neighborhoods, integration became defined as the period between the first black family moving into a community and the last white family moving out. To many, this racial transition in northern cities appeared to have exposed the limits of post-war civil rights progress. Patterns of resistance and flight fostered a new sense of instability that set off still more resistance and flight. It seemed an unbreakable cycle.

But some communities took a different approach. Around the country, small pockets of homeowners opted not to give into the belief that racial transition necessarily brought about neighborhood decline. Instead of meeting would-be black buyers with antagonism or acquiescing to the efforts of blockbusting realtors, these residents, largely white and middle-class, decided to welcome in their new neighbors. Neighborhood leaders attempted to create and manage integration in the face of the same tensions that existed in cities across the country. Combating deeply entrenched cultural racism and formal legal and governmental policies that promoted segregated housing, these innovative homeowners came together to save their neighborhoods by creating an institutional mandate toward residential integration.

When community members came together to change the patterns of transition that they were witnessing all around them, integration was not a foregone conclusion. In these neighborhoods, individuals wrestled with questions of social capital and identity politics, of liberalism and individual choice, of urban sustainability and racial justice. Here, people that loved their neighborhood came together to examine what many believed to be diametric polarities, and instead they found the possibility of compromise.

Shelley v. Kraemer created the potential for change in the United States. These individual communities took that potential and decided to find an alternative to the pervasive racial separation in American cities, without knowing what they would create in its place.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey and a fellow at the Kean Center for History, Politics, and Policy. Her first book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Post-War Philadelphia (Cornell University Press, 2014), examines this experience of interracial living in American cities.

Follow her on twitter at @abiperk and visit her website at www.abigailperkiss.com.

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