|KEEP OUT! THIS MEANS YOU BLACK &JEW!|
Dateline May 3, 1948 – The Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants in real estate deeds — which specifically barred sales to Blacks, Jews, and other minorities — was illegal. Prior to that date the courts had ruled these discriminatory practices were simply matters between private contractors, and the courts had been there to enforce these restrictive covenants in deeds for decades.
Contractually enforced discrimination has long, proud history in ‘Merka, going back to the original Founding Fathers and their cruel compromise, counting Black folk as 3/5ths a person and leaving the “peculiar institution” of slavery intact. Hell, a whole war was fought over it.
When the country was built on such a crass foundation, is it any wonder that whole generations of people came to feel privileged? So privileged, in fact, that people thought nothing of putting down that privilege in their real estate deals. The idea really started to take off in the 1920s, when planned communities like Coral Gables became the suburban norm as people started moving out of congested cities. What we now call White Flight can traced to these earliest migrations; it wasn’t just congestion that some people wanted to escape. Blacks and Jews were other ills of cities that people wanted to move away from. The best way to assure yourself that you won’t have to live among THEM is to put restrictive covenants in property deeds, which specifically spelled out to whom you could sell your own property. Therefore, you would be assured that you would only be living among your own kind by moving into planned communities with exclusionary covenants. According to the WikiWackyWoo:
In the 1920s and 1930s, covenants that restricted the sale or occupation of real property on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or social class were common in the United States, where the primary intent was to keep “white” neighbourhoods “white”. Such covenants were employed by many real estate developers to “protect” entire subdivisions. The purpose of an exclusionary covenant was to prohibit a buyer of property from reselling, leasing or transferring the property to members of a given race, ethnic origin and/or religion as specified in the title deed. Some covenants, such as those tied to properties in Forest Hills Gardens, New York, also sought to exclude working class people however this type of social segregation was more commonly achieved through the use of high property prices, minimum cost requirements and application reference checks. In practice, exclusionary covenants were most typically concerned with keeping out African-Americans, however restrictions against Asian-Americans, Jews and Catholics were not uncommon. For example, the Lake Shore Club District in Pennsylvania, sought to exclude various minorities including Negro, Mongolian, Hungarian, Mexican, Greek and various European immigrants. Cities known for their widespread use of racial covenants include Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit and Los Angeles.
Racial covenants emerged during the mid-nineteenth century and started to gain prominence from the 1890s onwards. However it was not until the 1920s that they adopted widespread national significance, a situation that continued until the 1940s. Some commentators have attributed the popularity of exclusionary covenants at this time as a response to the urbanisation of black Americans following World War I, and the fear of “black invasion” into white neighbourhoods, which they felt would result in depressed property prices, increased nuisance (crime) and social instability.
|The Shelley House,
St. Louis, Missouri
In 1945 Louis Kraemer sued to prevent the Shelley family from occupying the house they purchased in St. Louis. The Shelleys were Black and there had been a restrictive covenant on the land since 1911, which the family had been unaware of when they made their purchase. Kraemer knew, however, and sued. He was counting on the courts to uphold the contract and keep the Black Shelley family out of the neighbourhood.
The Missouri Supreme Court obliged, ruling as courts had been doing for
decades, that the deed was a private agreement, attached to the land.
Because it was estate law, as opposed to personal, the contract could be
enforced by a third party such as Louis Kraemer, who wanted to keep his
lily White neighbourhood lily White. Shelley appealed the Missouri
|The Orsel and Minnie McGhee House|
By 1948 The Supreme Court was ready to decide Shelley v. Kraemer, which came with a companion case along the same lines. McGhee v. Sipes was a case that had bubbled up from Detroit, where the McGhees had purchased property that came with restrictive covenant. By then Detroit had already gone through several racial spasms, such as the Ossian Sweet trial in the 1920s and the 1943 Riot.
Then Orsel and Minnie McGhee purchased the house at 4626 Seebaldt in Detroit, in which they had been living as tenants for a decade. A neighbourhood group decided to sue to uphold the restrictive covenant in the deed and Sipes became the plaintiff in that case. It too was decided in favour of the discriminatory covenant. It was also appealed. When it came up to the Supreme Court it was rolled in with Shelley v. Kelley. Lawyers for the defendants, including Thurgood Marshall for the McGhees, argued their positions under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
|I’m a sucker for historical markers.
Courtesy of Detroit: The History and Future of the Motor City
The Supreme Court didn’t QUITE rule the restrictive covenant was illegal under the 14th Amendment. The court ruled that contracts between private parties can still have restrictive covenants, which the parties can choose to abide by, or not, depending. However, the Supreme Court ALSO ruled that parties in dispute over restrictive covenants could no longer expect judicial review of these contracts because for a court to uphold the contract it would necessarily violate the Equal Protection Act of the Constitution.
And, let’s be clear: The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelley v. Kraemer didn’t end discrimination in housing. It just took new and different forms. Redlining was one way of restricting a neighbourhood. Condo and Homeowners Association Boards have their own ways of restricting who gets in.
As an aside: The Condo Association my parents moved into, and which I now reside to help take care of him, is predominantly White, while the surrounding associations (all a part of a much larger condo complex with several association boards) are far more mixed in the number of Blacks and Latino residents. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Just as Coral Gables being 98% White is no accident.
Additional Reading at Not Now Silly:
The 1943 Riot ► Unpacking My Detroit ► Part 5.1
No Skin In The Game ► Part One
No Skin In The Game ► Part Two
No Skin In The Game ► Part Three
You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – NYT Decides To Capitalize Negro
Montgomery Bus Boycott ► Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be
Happy Birthday Coconut Grove!!! Now Honour Your Past
An Introduction to Trolleygate
The Bible, Subliminal Satan, and Racism
Bulldozing Cultural History