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Vaughn, George L.


George L. Vaughn was an African American lawyer and civic leader who became a prominent member of the democratic party. Vaughn, who practiced in St. Louis, Missouri, is best remembered for representing J. D. Shelley in the landmark civil rights case of Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948), which struck down racially discriminatory real estate covenants.

Vaughn was born in Kentucky in 1885, the son of former slaves. He attended Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, and went to law school at Walden University in Nashville, Tennessee. He served in the artillery as a first lieutenant in world war i. After the war he moved to St. Louis, where he practiced law and, in 1919, helped to found the Citizen Liberty League, an organization that sought the election of more African Americans to public office. In 1936 Vaughn was appointed a St. Louis justice of the peace, and in 1941 he ran unsuccessfully for city alderman as a Democrat.

Vaughn became nationally known for his representation of J. D. Shelley. Shelley, an African American, was employed at a government-owned munitions factory and had saved enough money to make a down payment on a house. Using an African American real estate broker, he purchased a house in St. Louis and moved his family to the property in October 1945. An association of white homeowners was outraged at the sale of the house to an African American and served an eviction order on Shelley. An association of African American real estate brokers assisted Shelley by hiring Vaughn to fight the order.

The homeowners justified the eviction on the basis of a restrictive covenant contained in the deed, which stated that the property could not be "occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race." Vaughn opposed the eviction and won at the trial court. However, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the validity of the restrictive covenant and the eviction (Kraemer v. Shelley, 355 Mo. 814, 198 S.W.2d 679, 681 [1946]).

With the support of the African American real estate brokers, Vaughn successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal. At oral argument he called racially restrictive covenants "the Achilles heel" of U.S. democracy. The Supreme Court agreed in its 1948 decision, ruling that such covenants could not be enforced in state courts because they violated the fourteenth amendment by infringing upon the right of a citizen to purchase and dispose of property.

That same year Vaughn played a prominent role in the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. As a Missouri delegate, Vaughn proposed a resolution that would bar the seating of the Mississippi delegation because of the white supremacy provisions contained in the Mississippi state constitution. His resolution fell just 115 votes short of prevailing.

Vaughn died in St. Louis in 1950.

further readings

Kluger, Richard. 1974. Simple Justice. New York: Knopf.

Low, W. Augustus, and Virgil A. Clift, eds. 1984. Encyclopedia of Black America. New York: Da Capo Press.

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