Shelly vs. Kraemer

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  • The case of Shelley vs. Kraemer dates back to 1945, when the family of J.D. Shelley purchased a home in a St. Louis neighborhood that had apparently been under a restrictive covenant. This meant that white families in the area had a clause in their real estate contracts stating that no family with “Negro or Mongolian” descent could reside in the neighborhood. In fact, 30 out of 39 homeowners in the Labadie area neighborhood signed an agreement stating that for 50 years, none of the properties on the neighborhood grounds would be occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race.

    In October 1945, when a white homeowner, Louis Kraemer, who lived 10 blocks away from the home purchased by J.D. Shelley, heard of their buy, he swiftly hired a lawyer to get the contract removed. Taking the case to the Supreme Court of Missouri, Kraemer’s contracts held, with the court ordering that the private agreement was the “law of the land.”

    It wasn’t until May 3, 1948 that the United States Supreme Court saw the ruling of the state court in Missouri as a violation of the 14th Amendment. The ruling allowed for the private agreement among neighborhoods, but it was unlawful for the state government to enforce them.

    The case of Shelley vs. Kraemer was used as a benchmark for many cases going forward involving restrictive covenants. That included the Dec. 6, 1945 ruling in a Los Angeles neighborhood where famed black actors Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Joel Fluellen and Pearl Bailey lived. White neighbors worked to get them kicked out of the neighborhood under the same type of covenant. The final court decision was in favor of the actors, using Shelley vs. Kraemer as a precedent.

    On Dec. 14, 1990, the two-story home of the Shelley family was declared a national landmark in St. Louis, Missouri.

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