1948 Fifty Years Ago

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On May 3, in the cases of Shelley v. Kraemer and Hurd v. Hodge , the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial covenants in real estate deeds were not legally enforceable. Such covenants—which usually prevented homeowners from selling their houses to nonwhites—were not illegal in themselves, since private agreements were beyond the reach of civil rights laws. But under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Court ruled, the apparatus of state or federal government could not be used to enforce them, because that would involve the government in an act of discrimination. The decision, written by Chief Justice Fred Vinson, was endorsed by a margin of 6 to 0. Three justices recused themselves from the case, presumably because they owned houses in restricted neighborhoods (one of which barred blacks, Jews, and Persians, among others).

In the aftermath of the decision, some white homeowners complained that the Court had pulled the rug from under them. Suddenly, by judicial fiat, they faced a potentially large drop in the value of property that represented much of their life savings. Blacks, of course, felt just the opposite. The country’s severe postwar housing crunch had been greatly exacerbated for them, since almost all the suburban developments springing up around the country were restricted.

On the 100 block of Washington’s Bryant Street, the Washington Post found reactions varying with race. Of the block’s thirty-one houses, twenty were covered by a racial covenant, but in recent years most of them had been sold to nonwhites anyway. One of these sales, to James M. Hurd—variously described as black and Mohawk Indian—had been invalidated by a lower court. That decision was appealed in Hurd v. Hodge , which the block’s dwindling band of white homeowners saw as their last stand. On hearing of the decision, a white resident said, “I’m putting up the for-sale sign tomorrow. . . . God only knows how much I’ll get for my house.”

By contrast, a black newcomer to the neighborhood exulted, “I knew it couldn’t stay that way. This is America, brother.” Another black resident recalled discovering the restriction on his house after he had bought it: “When I found out, I wanted to get out right quick, but I had no place to go. It’s a relief, I tell you, to know we’re safe here now.”

A former leader of a white homeowners’ group decried real estate agents who sold covenanted houses to blacks, calling them “whelps who traffic in the welfare of decent citizens.” He expressed hope that the Supreme Court decision would not be the last word on residential segregation: “I’m sure there will be methods devised that will protect people who want to have neighbors who think along the same lines. I have no compunctions against deserving colored people trying to get ahead, but I think they would be happier living among their own people, just as we feel better among our own.”

His remarks proved prescient. Even today residential integration remains far from reality, as most people can verify by looking out the window. Custom, intimidation, informal agreements, and simple economics have often proved as effective as legal covenants. Still, the Supreme Court decisions ensured that the instruments of the state would not be involved in perpetuating segregation. Equally important, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae brief opposing enforcement of the covenants, its first such action in a major civil rights case. The federal government would go on to take an increasingly assertive role in the civil rights struggles of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.