Looking Back - Shelley v. Kraemer

Law Day artwork courtesy of the American Bar Association

Law Day artwork courtesy of the American Bar Association

On this date in 1948, in its landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), the highest court in the nation struck down racially restricted covenants placed on real property on the ground that such agreements denied the prospective property owners equal protection of the laws. The agreements in question, executed by a majority of property owners restricted the occupation of said properties on the basis of race. In 1945, petitioners Shelley, unaware of these restrictive covenants, received a warranty deed to a house on Labadie Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. Respondents, owners whose properties were also subject to the agreement, filed an action in the state court in Missouri asking the court to restrain the Shelleys from taking possession of the property and to divest them of title to the property. The trial court refused to enforce the agreement, finding that the agreement was never finalized because the parties intended it to be effective once all property owners signed it. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the trial court’s judgment, directing the lower court to grant the relief requested by respondent property owners.

Image of the Shelley House - courtesy of the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Photo by Gerald L. Gilleard.

The Shelleys appealed to the United States Supreme Court, asserting that they were denied equal protection of the laws, deprived of property without due process, and denied the privileges and immunities due the citizens of the United States. The court noted that, in and of themselves, the restrictions could not be considered to be in violation of any of those rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment because there was no action on the part of the state. However, the enforcement of the restrictive covenants by the state courts created the state action necessary to bring this issue squarely under the purview of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, because the state court judicially enforced the agreements, the states had effectively denied the Shelleys equal protection of the laws. The Court found it unnecessary to address the other Fourteenth Amendment issues.

The home at the center of the controversy, the Shelley House, was designated as a National Historic Landmark on December 14, 1990 because of its historic and social significance in the civil rights movement. It remains as a symbol of the fight to achieve equality and stands as a reminder that all persons, without restriction by the states or the federal government, have the right to own property. Although the house at 4600 Labadie Avenue in St. Louis is a National Historic Landmark, it is currently privately owned and not open to the public.