Shelley v. Kraemer 1948

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Shelley v. Kraemer 1948

Petitioner: J.D. Shelley

Respondent: Louis Kraemer

Petitioner's Claim: That contracts preventing African Americans from purchasing homes violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner: George L. Vaughn and Herman Willer

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Gerald L. Seegers

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, Harold Burton, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Frank Murphy, Frederick Moore Vinson

Justices Dissenting: None (Robert H. Jackson, Stanley Forman Reed, and Wiley Blount Rutledge did not participate)

Date of Decision: May 3, 1948

Decision: The Supreme Court said the Fourteenth Amendment prevents courts from enforcing race discrimination in real estate contracts.

Significance: Shelley ended a powerful form of race discrimination in housing.

When the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States ended slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment. Three years later in 1868, it adopted the Fourteenth Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment says a state may not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The main purpose of the Equal Protection Clause was to prevent states from discriminating against African Americans.

The Fourteenth Amendment only applies to the states. It does not prevent race discrimination by individual people. After 1868, racial prejudice led many people to continue race discrimination on their own.

Whites Only

In 1911 there was a neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri, where thirty-nine people owned fifty-seven parcels of land. In February of that year, thirty of the owners signed an agreement not to rent or sell their property to African Americans or Asian Americans. Such an agreement is called a restrictive covenant. The owners who signed the restrictive covenant had forty-seven of the fifty-seven parcels in the neighborhood.

In August 1945, J.D. Shelley and his wife, who were African Americans, bought a parcel of land in the neighborhood from someone named Fitzgerald. The Shelleys were unaware of the restrictive covenant. Louis Kraemer and his wife, who owned another parcel in the neighborhood, sued the Shelleys in the Circuit Court of St. Louis. The Kraemers asked the court to take the Shelleys' land away and give it back to Fitzgerald.

The court ruled in favor of the Shelleys because the restrictive covenant did not have the proper signatures. On appeal, however, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed and ruled in favor of the Kraemers. The court said the restrictive covenant was legal and ordered the Shelleys to leave their land. Determined to stay, the Shelleys took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Race Discrimination Unenforceable

With a 6–0 decision, the Supreme Court reversed again and ruled in favor of the Shelleys. Chief Justice Frederick Moore Vinson wrote the opinion for the Court. Chief Justice Vinson said the right to own property is one of the rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. That means a state would not be allowed to create a restrictive covenant that discriminated against people because of their race.

Missouri, of course, did not create the restrictive covenant that applied to the Shelleys' land. Private owners created it in 1911. That meant the restrictive covenant itself did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The only way to enforce the covenant, however, was to go to court, as the Kraemers had done.

Chief Justice Vinson said the Fourteenth Amendment made it illegal for state courts to enforce restrictive covenants that discriminate against people because of their race. Vinson said, "freedom from discrimination by the States in the enjoyment of property rights was among the basic objectives sought … by the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. … The Fourteenth Amendment declares that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States."


F rederick Moore Vinson was born in Louisa, Kentucky, on January 22, 1890. Vinson worked his way through Centre College in Kentucky, earning an undergraduate degree in 1909 and a law degree in 1911. He then practiced law in his hometown until 1923, serving briefly during that time as city attorney and commonwealth attorney.

In 1923, Vinson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served there from 1924 to 1929 and again from 1931 to 1938. In between he practiced law in Ashland, Kentucky. In 1938 Vinson became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. After working as a judge for five years, Vinson pursued a career in the executive branch of the federal government. He worked for presidents Roosevelt and Truman, serving under Truman as Secretary of the Treasury.

When Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone died in 1946, President Truman appointed Vinson to replace Stone. From Vinson's years of loyal service to American presidents, Truman knew Vinson would protect presidential power from the Supreme Court. During his seven years on the Supreme Court, Vinson voted regularly in favor of governmental power over individual rights. Shelley v. Kraemer was a rare exception to that tendency. Vinson died from a heart attack on September 8, 1953.

In the end, then, the Kraemers were not allowed to take the Shelleys' land away. The decision was an early victory for African Americans, who were struggling to protect their civil rights. Six years later, the Court would order public schools to stop segregation, the practice of separating blacks and whites in different schools. Such decisions gave Americans the chance to live and go to school together in the melting pot of the United States.

Suggestions for further reading

Bourgoin, Suzanne Michele, and Paula Kay Byers, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Gillam, Scott. Discrimination: Prejudice in Action. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

McKissack, Pat. Taking a Stand against Racism and Racial Discrimination. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Phillips, Angela. Discrimination. New Discovery Books, 2000.

Wilson, Anna. African Americans Struggle for Equality. Vero Beach: Rourke, 1992.

Witt, Elder, ed. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. District of Columbia: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1990.

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