Michigan State University

May 3, 1948 : U.S. Supreme Court Rules Housing Racial Covenants Unconstitutional

Jon Harrison
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On May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a case brought by a Detroit couple that racial covenants in housing were unconstitutional. Racial covenants had been used for years to bar people of color from Detroit neighborhoods.

During the Depression decade, the demand for housing in Detroit plummeted. Owners were looking for renters so they paid less attention to the color or religion of the applicant. As I understand it, the owner of the property at 4626 Seebaldt knew that it had a restrictive covenant restricting occupancy to Caucasians, but they were so in need of cash that they rented it during the Depression to African Americans: Orsel McGhee who was a press operator at the Freep and his wife, Minnie, who sorted mail for the post office. They lived on Seebaldt for about a decade and sought to purchase the home.

During the World War II years, whites in many Detroit neighborhoods knew that the high wages of that era were creating a large black middle class who could afford to live outside of the neighborhoods where Jim Crow had confined them. Whites in the Seebaldt street neighborhood organized a neighborhood club in 1944 and emphasized enforcing the restrictive covenant that prevented the McGhees from living on Seebaldt. Since the McGhees were, apparently, well-liked by their neighbors, the block group had a hard time finding a litigant who would sue to remove the McGhees. Eventually, the Sipes family agreed to become a plaintiff and a suit to expel the McGhees was filed in Detroit's Recorders Court. The strong NAACP in Detroit immediately recognized the significance of the litigation and arranged for one of their attorneys Thurgood Marshall to defend the McGhees. The called upon the sociologist, Mel Tumen, from Wayne who argued that racial categories were not scientific and that no one could scientifically define the term Caucasian or certify that the McGhees totally lacked Caucasian blood. This was a typical defense used at that time in restrictive covenant cases. Detroit's Recorders Court agreed with the plaintiffs, upheld the restrictive covenant and ordered the McGhees to leave. The NAACP immediately appealed and advanced the case through the Michigan state courts. Eventually the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the restrictive covenant, but the NAACP won a stay of their expulsion order and filed suit in federal court.

When the McGhee v. Sipes litigation reached the Supreme Court in Washington, they had two other restrictive covenant cases to decide. The lead case was Shelley v. Kramer concerning restrictive covenants in St. Louis. The Supreme Court merged the Seebaldt Street litigation with that from St. Louis since the instant matter was the same. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1922 that restrictive covenants were legal but in their 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kramer (May 3, 1948), the Supreme Court decided that while there was no federal prohibition against including restrictive covenants in property deeds, no state or federal court could enforce them. Civil rights activists viewed this as a great victory since restrictive covenants could not longer be used to keep Jews or blacks out of a neighborhood. However, developers continued to insert them into property deeds until the 1960s. In theory the Shelley v. Kramer decision was a major blow to Jim Crow practices in residential segregation but the actual segregation of blacks from whites in neighborhoods did not start to decline until after 1970, presumably due in part to the Open Housing Law that Congress passed in 1968.

After the case was over and the McGhees' right to live in their home had been upheld, they and the couple who had brought the suit against them, neighbors Benjamin and Anna Sipes, became lifelong friends.

It was that friendship--transcending fear, threats, anger and heartache--that inspired Kathleen McGhee Anderson, the granddaughter of the McGees an consulting producer for the critically acclaimed Lifetime series "Any Day Now" to write "The Color of Courage," a USA Network movie.

Sources :

The Orsel and Minnie McGhee Home

Lynne Heffley, "They Built a Home in Which All Could Live:, Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1999
 
This Week In Michigan History, Detroit Free Press, May 3, 2009, A.14.

 

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