On May 3, 1948—64 years ago today—the Supreme Court in a landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer ruled that courts could not enforce racial covenants on real estate.
In 1945, the Shelleys, who were African American, purchased a home in a residential neighborhood in Missouri—a neighborhood which was governed by a private restrictive covenant preventing African Americans from owning property within the subdivision. A white family, the Kraemers, sued the Shelleys in an effort to prevent them from moving in.
A trial court ruled in favor of the Shelleys, but the Supreme Court of Missouri sided with the Kraemers, holding that the covenant was enforceable because it was purely a private agreement.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where six justices (three justices had previously disqualified themselves from the case) ruled unanimously that courts could not prevent real estate sales to African Americans, even when property was covered by racially restrictive covenants. Although private parties could abide by the terms of such covenants, they did not have the right to seek judicial enforcement when the restrictions were challenged, because enforcement by court injunctions would constitute state action in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The decision stated, in part, that:
The historical context in which the Fourteenth Amendment became a part of the Constitution should not be forgotten. Whatever else the framers sought to achieve, it is clear that the matter of primary concern was the establishment of equality in the enjoyment of basic civil and political rights and the preservation of those rights from discriminatory action on the part of the States based on considerations of race or color. Seventy-five years ago this Court announced that the provisions of the Amendment are to be construed with this fundamental purpose in mind. Upon full consideration, we have concluded that in these cases the States have acted to deny petitioners the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Although Shelley v. Kraemer (consolidated with the similar case McGhee v. Sipes) did not outlaw or eliminate racially restrictive covenants, it did, through its rejection of court injunctions, mark a major milestone in the fight for equality, foreshadowing significant improvements to come.
To read the Court’s opinion, click here.
For more on this topic, check out Housing Desegregation and Federal Policy (ed. John Goering), available through UNC Press’s Enduring Editions collection.
Readers might also be interested in Olivia’s Story: The Conspiracy of Heroes behind Shelley v. Kraemer, in which Jeffrey Copeland constructs a first-person narrative based on archival sources and interviews to tell a story of racism and discrimination, and the struggle to combat them.