Deeds of Mistrust: Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and Restrictive Covenants in Chicago, 1927-1950"

Wendy Plotkin
Ph.D. Candidate
University of Illinois at Chicago
Department of History

This WWW page was created by Wendy Plotkin ( in 1997 while a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and updated on 1 September 2003.



Originally for presentation at the October, 1996 Social Science Historical Meeting; revised for presentation to the Newberry Library Urban History Dissertation Group on 21 May 1997.

This is a working paper representing the earliest stages of the author's Ph.D. dissertation research, and thus it is assumed that the information and conclusions included in the paper are likely to change in future versions.

Quoting is only allowed with prior permission of the author.

Copyright, 1996, 1997 Wendy Plotkin.

This paper has its genesis in an earlier interest in exploring race and housing in the 1950s as a dissertation topic. As Arnold Hirsch had already explored the development of public and publicly subsidized housing in Chicago in this period in the landmark Making the Second Ghetto[1], I was particularly interested in looking at the dynamics of the private housing market, which, although present, played a smaller part in Hirsch's book.

In examining the sources on race and housing in Chicago for the period preceding the 1950s, I read much about racial restrictive covenants, agreements among neighbors to not convey their residences to African-Americans or other racial and religious minorities. Hirsch, Thomas Philpott in the 1978 The Slum and the Ghetto[2] and others referred to these covenants, as did reminiscences of African-American authors such as Lorraine Hansberry and Dempsey Travis. What surprised me was that although racial restrictive covenants are mentioned in most African-American urban histories, as well as accounts of the pre-Brown vs. Board of education civil rights movement, there was no recent comprehensive history of them in the U.S., or in individual cities such as Chicago, with which they came to be associated.[1] Thus, I decided to look deeper into the topic of racial restrictive covenants in Chicago in the 1920s through the 1940s, as well as other forms of racial residential segregation in this period.

Racial restrictive covenants were first used in the U.S. in the 1890s and adopted in Chicago in 1927. As a new instrument of discrimination aimed primarily at African-Americans, they gained the early attention of African-American and other authors inside and outside of academia, for the purpose of documenting their existence, evaluating their effectiveness, and in some instances, advocating for their elimination. Thus, in the 1929 study The Housing of Negroes In Washington, D.C.: A Study in Human Ecology, William Henry Jones, the former head of the Department of Sociology at Howard University, devoted a section to "The 'Covenant.'" In this study, he noted that "In Washington, the 'covenant' seems to be the most widely employed method for keeping Negroes out of 'exclusively white' residential districts." (72) At the same time, he pointed to their porous nature as barriers to outward movement by African-Americans as covenanted neighborhoods eventually were occupied by them. Jones' work and evaluation of the impact of covenants was important in a major national study of "Negro Housing" supervised by sociologist Charles Johnson as part of the 1932 President's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership. This study also agreed that covenants were a temporary impediment to the outward movement of African-Americans in northern cities, and, like Jones, emphasized the use of violence and harrassment as significant tools of segregation.[2]

During the Depression, covenants were an important item on the agenda of the civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League, leading to a Supreme Court challenge in 1938 in Hansberry v. Lee, in which playwright Lorraine Hansberry's father, a prominent Chicago realtor and Republican, acquired a covenanted property explicitly to challenge the constitutionality of covenants. The sociological literature on African-Americans of this time increasingly emphasized covenants as a potent symbol and instrument of racial discrimination. Thus, three major works of the era highlighted them. In the 1944 An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal described their use in Chicago and in other cities, and wrote of the attempt to have the Supreme Court rule them unconstitutional "If the Court should follow up its action of declaring all local laws to segregate Negroes unconstitutional by declaring illegal also the private restrictive covenants, segregation in the North would be nearly doomed...." (624)

In Black Metropolis, the seminal study of Chicago's African-American community by sociologist Horace Cayton and anthropologist St. Clair Drake, researched in the 1930s and published in 1945, two major barriers to African-American progress are presented: the "job ceiling" and the "black ghetto." And the authors attribute the preservation of the ghetto to racial restrictive covenants. They assert "The Job Ceiling subordinates Negroes but does not segregate them. Restrictive covenants do both. They confine Negroes to the Black Belt, and they limit the Black Belt to the most rundown areas of the city."(113) In this book, and in a frequently cited article authored by Horace Cayton in 1940, the figure of eighty percent of Chicago's land area being covered by covenants is presented, a figure contested by other African-American sociologists of the time.

In the 1948 The Negro Ghetto, Robert Weaver, a Harvard-educated sociologist and staff person for the the Chicago-based American Council on Race Relations, also attributed significance to covenants, devoting a chapter entitled "The Villain--Racial Covenants" to them -- in spite of acknowledging the complementary effects of other segregationist stratgems. Weaver wrote "Of all the instruments that effect residential segregation, race restrictive covenants are the most dangerous." (232) What distinguished covenants from other sorts of segregationist tactics was their use by upper- and middle-class whites, and their psychological effect on lower class whites. In the "legal sanction" and "appearance of respectability" that they lent to segregationist activities, Weaver asserted that the embrace of restrictive covenants by the "better" classes encouraged the spread of racism to the lower classes, who, "a generation ago...thought little about color." (233)

In addition to these psychological effects, Weaver described the economic effects, in terms of their exploitative use by realtors who raised rents in the ghetto and ensured whites outside of the "safety" through covenants. Weaver argued that covenants were not the expression of a "spontaneous movement" of racist citizens, but the manipulative strategy selected by real estate interests. In making this assertion, Weaver implied that their encouragement by the real estate community exploited a sentiment that might not have matured into overt or organized resistance in the absence of their activities. (THE NEGRO GHETTO, 37-38)

In spite of this agreement with Cayton and Drake on the seriousness of the covenants as an instument of segregation, he disagrees with their estimate that 80 percent of the land area in Chicago was covered by covenants, observing that "80 per cent of Chicago is not in residential use." In an interesting commentary on the sociological assessment of covenants, Weaver writes of the higher estimate

"The fact that the figure has seldom been challenged by those who oppose covenants is symbolic of two things: the high frequency of racial covenants in Chicago and the loss of perspective which usually typifies any discussion of the subject."(213)

Weaver accepts the argument of a Fisk University study that showed __ of the Chicago area covered by covenants, and mostly in the neighborhoods adjacent to the black belt.

Weaver ultimately agrees with earlier authors in describing the effects of racial restrictive covenants as "articial" and "temporary" -- although this transiency did not lessen the severity of their impact or the damage that they had done to the African-American community and the city as a whole. He argued that when the temporary barriers built up by the existence of covenants and hostility burst, they released African-Americans of all classes into surrounding neighborhoods. Absent covenants and other means of restricting residence, African-Americans would have sorted themselves out by class in a manner similar to other ethnic groups, so that the more affluent and higher class African- Americans would have settled among affluent, higher class whites. Instead, all classes poured into neighboring white communities who reacted to the presence of the lower classes, leaving behind a new set of segregated neighborhoods subject to the same economic effects of the neighborhood from which they were fleeing.

I hoped to undertake a synthesis of existing work on, and a further investigation into, the "making of Chicago's first ghetto" and of the nascent civil rights movement in Chicago that fought the abridgement of rights that accompanied the making of this ghetto. In choosing to write about the "private market" in Chicago's housing in the 1920s through the 1940s, I acknowledge Hirsch's point that the public powers created in land use planning in the 1940s and after offered opportunities for change in the racial landscape of Chicago that would have taken years for the private market to achieve on its own.

Prior to the enthusiastic and rapid embrace of racial restrictive covenants in Chicago in 1927, a period later than their adoption in other cities, Chicago had developed its share of techniques to ensure a segregated city.[3] Hostility, harrassment, and violence were aimed at African-Americans sporadically from the time they established their presence in Chicago in significant numbers, in the late 19th century. [4] However, this antagonism increased significantly during and after World War I when over two decades the African-American population increased from almost 45,000 in 1910 to over 230,000 in 1930, reflecting an increase from 2 percent of Chicago's population to 7 percent. [5]

In the years from 1917 through 1921, during the unstable war and post-War years, there were fifty eight bombings associated with black movement into white areas in Chicago, with two fatalities and several injuries. That the goal was sustaining segregation was apparent in the advance warnings of the bombings, and their targeting of African American and white realtors who crossed the color lines in their sales. The home and office of Jesse Binga, Chicago's most famous African-American realtor who also lived in an integrated neighborhood, were bombed six times in a 12 month period between 1919 and 1920, including the 1919 Chicago riot. Another African-American realtor had her home bombed four times, and her insurance company cancelled her policy. African-Americans in these neighborhoods organized among themselves to advocate for effective police protection, as the Chicago police had done little to protect against and investigate the bombings.

In its report on the riot, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations alleged that the bombings were associated with the intense propaganda campaign of the property owners association in Hyde Park and Kenwood, and that bombings did not occur in integrating areas where emotions were not raised to such a fever peak.

Other forms of harrassment included actions by neighborhood associations, who organized boycotts against realtors who sold or rented to African-Americans. These associations also offered to buy properties from African-Americans in their midst, and aimed antagonistic verbal and written expressions at the African-American community, in meetings, newspapers, threatening letters, and flyers spread throughout the neighborhood.[6] Neighborhood associations were formed and flourished to achieve a variety of purposes from the late 19th century on. Some existing associations in Chicago adopted racial restriction as a goal after an African-American threat was perceived; others were created specifically to address this threat. [7]

Attempts to apply public policy tools to the cause of segregation included a proposal to adopt racial zoning in Chicago in 1917. Racial zoning spread throughout the Southern U.S. in the first part of the century, as cities such as Baltimore, Louisville, Richmond, Winston-Salem and Dallas adopted ordinances creating racially restricted zones.[8] Although less common in Northern cities, and never adopted in Chicago, the idea of a racial zoning ordinance in 1917 was broached to African-American realtors by the Chicago Real Estate Board, to be met by massive resistance from the African-American community. It is likely that this was floated as a threat more than as a reality, in the hope that African-American realtors would be more willing to enter into private agreements to enforce segregation.[9] The Supreme Court ruled in the same year in Buchanan v. Warley that racial zoning was unconstitutional, although the rationale of the Court was the violation of the rights of property owners to dispose of their properties rather than the rights of African-Americans to acquire or lease them. Although other cities continued to enact racial zoning laws through the 1940s, Chicago turned to other means of ensuring the separation of the races.[10]

Nationally and locally, real estate boards sharpened their tools for ensuring segregated neighborhoods. In 1921, the Chicago Real Estate Board,

voted unanimously to expel any member who rented or sold property on a white block to black people.

It was implicitly understood that realtors in "transitional" areas adjacent to the Black Belt would be exempted from this requirement so as to protect their economic interests. [11]

In 1924, Nathan William MacChesney, a prominent progressive attorney in Chicago and member of the Chicago Plan Commission, drafted an addition to the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) that

forbade realtors to introduce 'members of any race or nationality' into neighborhoods where their presence would damage property values.

Backing this up was a "model real estate licensing act," adopted by 32 states, authorizing

state commissions to revoke all licenses of agents who violated the National Real Estate Board's Code of Ethics.

MacChesney also authored THE PRINCIPLES OF REAL ESTATE LAW in 1927, in which he indicted African-Americans as the one ethnic group detrimental to residential stability. In that same year, MacChesney drafted a model racial restrictive covenant for the Chicago Real Estate Board. This legal instrument solely targeted African-Americans, whom it defined as any persons having "1/8 part or more negro blood" OR "having any appreciable admixture of negro blood," OR who "is what is commonly known as a colored person." It prohibited the signers from renting, selling, or conveying for occupancy property to African-Americans, excepting only janitors, chauffeurs and house servants who lived with their employers. The covenant of this period, unlike a later one adopted in the 1940s in Chicago or those of other cities such as St. Louis, required that a certain percentage of owners within a neighborhood had to agree to a covenant prior to its taking effect. The percentage was measured by the frontage of their properties, such that in the standard 1927 covenant, owners of "75% of the property frontage in a given area" had to have signed for it to take effect. Only those signed were obligated by it. [12]

The covenant was considered safe from Supreme Court interference after the Supreme Court refused to rule on a covenant case in Washington, D.C. in Corrigan v. Buckley in 1927. Although its refusal was based on jurisdictional issues that might not be able to be generalized elsewhere, the Court included in the ruling a suggestion that constitutionality was not an issue on restrictive covenants. [12a] This was enough encouragement for the real estate community in Chicago and throughout the U.S., which felt free to use this novel instrument that, unlike racial zoning, was considered to be a private tool.

In the period after 1927, the Chicago Real Estate Board actively marketed the covenant, speaking at "YMCAs, churches, women's clubs, PTAs, Kiwanis clubs, chambers of commerce and property owners' associations." Many neighborhoods responded. They included Hyde Park, Woodlawn, Park Manor, South Shore, and other neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side adjacent to the so-called "black belt", as well as outlying Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs. Churches and synagogues joined in the covenant campaigns, pledging funds to cover the costs of organizing a covenant. These costs could be extensive due to the outreach and research required to ensure that the covenant was legal. [13]

A 1944 study by the Fisk University Institute of Race Relations revealed the extensive activity in establishing covenants in this period. The study estimated that forty percent of all covenants in existence on the South Side of Chicago in 1944 had been implemented in the late 1920s, with another thirty seven percent in the 1930s and twenty three percent in the early 1940s. [13a]

In the predominantly Irish and German neighborhood of Englewood resided Archibald Motley, an African-American Pullman porter and father of artist Archibald Motley, Jr. and writer Willard Motley, the author of Knock On Any Door and Let No Man Write My Epitaph. The family lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, and indeed, while the artist Archibald Motley, Jr. painted scenes of African-American life, Willard Motley primarily wrote from the perspective of a raceless individual. In the late 1920s, Englewood organized a covenant campaign, and Motley was asked to sign it in spite of the fact that he was African-American. He was assured that if he signed it, it would not be enforced against him; only after he moved out would the property revert to white ownership under the terms of the covenant. He refused, arguing that this would prevent him from leaving his house to his sons. [14]

{Some realtors worked on both sides of the covenant issue. Realtor Frederick Bartlett engaged in early block-busting activity, informing whites that African-Americans were moving into their neighborhoods on the South Side, acquiring their homes at discount prices, and selling to African-Americans. At the same time, in selling to immigrant whites, he assured them that their neighborhood was protected by covenants, and thus they did not have to fear African-American intrusion.} [15]

One of the questions that was not answered in the literature was how much of Chicago was covered by covenants in this and later periods. A common estimate used by civil rights advocates was that 80% of the city's residential space was covered by covenants. However, the 1944 study by the Fisk University Institute of Race Relations which actually examined covenants on the city's South Side, estimated that only 1/4 of the residential space was covered. Rather than implying that this was inconsequential, the authors of the Fisk study emphasized the psychological effect of covenants.

Much of the covenant activity in the 1930s was associated with the development of the Washington Park subdivision, a 1-mile square area to the south of Washington Park, part of Chicago's system of green space], and surrounded on three sides by African-American neighborhoods. Washington Park was a well-to-do area, adjacent to Hyde Park, the neighborhood in which the University of Chicago was located, and to Woodlawn, a middle-class neighborhood south of the University of Chicago.

Businessmen from the adjacent neighborhood of Woodlawn established the Woodlawn Property Owners' Association [WPOA], with a main agenda item of drawing up covenants to cover the entire area. The enforcement of the covenant was both supported and requested by mortgage companies and banks holding mortgages in the area. [16] In addition, the University of Chicago was a key supporter of the covenant campaign in Washington Park, although this activity was not publicized and was denied at times by the university. In 1933, the Board of Trustees of the University, through the Assistant Treasurer, George Fairweather, began to financially support the WPOA by covertly establishing the 63rd St. Council, an organization of businesses. By using this covert channel, it was able to consistently deny involvement in the WPOA or the covenant campaign, although in the minds of many, the university was linked with the covenants. African-Americans told of a landlord who had turned away a potential tenant saying "I'd like to rent to you, but the University of Chicago won't let me.'" [17]

In spite of the covenants, African-Americans continued to move into the Washington Park subdivision, pressed by the increasing congestion of the Black Belt. Facing this challenge, the Woodlawn Property Owners' Association re-organized into the Woodlawn Property Owners' League (WPOL) and strengthened itself with the assistance of the University of Chicago. In March, 1934, the League announced that it had been responsible for the eviction of all African-American families that had moved into the subdivision in the last 8 months. Furthermore, court cases were pending for those who had moved into the neighborhood prior to that. African American families continued to trickle in at a slow pace inhibited by the existence of these covenants and the determination of the improvement association to contest any violations of the covenants. Only those willing to face the possibility of eviction made the move. [18]

Among those taking on the challenge was Carl Hansberry, founder of one of Chicago's first black banks and of Hansberry Enterprises, a real estate syndicate established in 1936 that "controlled property housing four thousand families and ...worth in excess of $250,000" by 1941. Hansberry and his wife had migrated from Mississippi and Tennessee to Chicago as part of the "Great Migration", settling originally in the Black Belt. The banker ran for Congress as a Republican in the late 1930s, and established the Hansberry Foundation to "encourage and promote respect for all laws, especially those as related to the civil rights of American citizens." Through the Foundation, Hansberry challenged the Washington Park covenant after purchasing a covenanted property in the neighborhood and moving his family from the South Side. [19]

The case received national attention after the Illinois State Supreme Court ruled against Hansberry, and the NAACP decided to take it to the U.S Supreme Court. Real estate organizations were alerted to the importance of the case, and African-Americans organized fund-raising and newspaper campaigns to support Hansberry.

That the restrictive covenants had economic implications for white realtors as well as for African-Americans seeking housing was made apparent in the Hansberry case. The NAACP was joined in the suit by an association of white realtors under the rubric of the "Small Property Owners, Associated, Inc.," whose officers sought

relief from the glaring inequity of this existing 'restrictive agreement' upon the undeniable grounds of repeatedly proven Abandonment, Impractibility [sic] to further Enforce, Public Policy and to reassure our members the restoration of their inherent American right to again freely exercise, within their discretion, adequate safeguards toward the vital protection of their financial investments herein.

These were realtors who accepted the likelihood that in spite of the best efforts of whites, African Americans would eventually move in. Facing the reality of fewer and fewer white buyers, the covenant became a burden, and the realtors joined those who wished to have them overruled.

The case was won on a technical point, thus depriving Hansberry of the satisfaction of a ruling against restrictive covenants. [20]

Hansberry's daughter, Lorraine, memorialized the experience of living through this legal challenge as a child in her first play, "A Raisin in the Sun," which opened to great acclaim in New York City in 1959. The play includes a scene in which a member of the neighborhood association visits the house of the family to inform them that they are not welcome. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1964, a year before her premature death at age 35 of cancer, the embittered, politically radical author wrote:

...My father was typical of a generation of Negroes who believed that the "American way" could successfully be made to work to democratize the United States. Thus, twenty five years ago, he spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago's "restrictive covenants" in one of this nation's ugliest ghettoes.

That fight also required that our family occupy the disputed property in a hellishly hostile "white neighborhood" in which, literally, howling mobs surrounded our house. One of their missiles almost took the life of the then eight-year-old signer of this letter. My memories of this "correct" way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our house all night with a loaded German lugar, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington courts.

The fact that my father and the NAACP "won" a Supreme Court decision in a now famous case which bears his name in the lawbooks, is - ironically -- the sort of "progress" our satisfied friends allude to when they presume to deride the more radical means of struggle. The cost, in emotional turmoil, time and money, which led to my father's early death as a permanently embittered exile in a foreign country when he saw that after such sacrificial efforts the Negroes of Chicago were as ghetto-locked as ever, does not seem to figure in their calculations. [21]

In spite of Hansberry's bitterness, and of the national real estate community's celebration that the Supreme Court had not declared covenants unconstitutional, the ruling included a provision that made it costly for the Woodlawn Property Owners' League to continue to challenge covenants. This, and the enormous economic pressure to sell to African-Americans once the prejudicial "tipping" point had been reached, meant that within five years of the ruling, the covenants in the neighborhood collapsed and the neighborhood became entirely African-American. [22]

Throughout this period, the CHICAGO DEFENDER consistently accused the University of Chicago of involvement in the covenant cases. In 1938, the Illinois NAACP decided to openly confront the university by issuing a set of resolutions against covenants, and attempting to get the university to endorse them. The Board of Trustee's business manager, however, recommended that the University continue to dissociate itself from the covenant activity rather than take a stand against them, and Hutchins tooks his suggestion. Eventually, the DEFENDER received corroboration about University involvement both from white realtors embittered by relations with the university and from organizations such as the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality, the predecessor to the national civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The white realtors were able to expose the straw organizations through which the university made its contribution[s] to the covenant campaigns. CORE, taking on restrictive covenants [in Chicago] as one of its earliest causes, obtained the books of one of these organizations and a record of a payment to the legal fund. [23]

According to Hirsch,

From 1933 to 1947 (with the exception of a single year for which data could not be found), the university spent $110,923.72 on 'community interests,' $83,597.46 of which was apparently used in defending restrictive covenants. Before the fiscal year 1941-42, $69,150.12 was spent 'principaly' for such 'legal services' and payments of $165.00 per month were made to the Woodlawn Property Owners' League for 'protective work.'" (Hirsch, 145)

In its own internal records, the university claimed credit for its ability to inhibit African- American in-movement and to evict Mexican families through the covenant campaign. [24]

The university Treasurer argued in a letter to an alumnus criticizing the university's support of covenants:

For my own part I am persuaded that the welfare and even the very existence of the University in the future requires, in the present circumstances, that such agreements be supported and encouraged in the neighboring communities. [25]

In a confidential memo to the university president, it was revealed that the university provided significant support for a Federation of Neighborhood Associations dedicated to preservation of the covenants.

In its public stance, the university argued that the federal government held the solution to the neighborhood's problems. Public housing that would assumedly be built elsewhere would reduce pressure on Woodlawn and Washington Park for black expansion. The university also expressed helplessness at the desire of the community to defend itself through the use of legal covenants, and distanced itself from the community's decisions on this. [26]

There is irony in the university's support of the covenants, in that its Sociology Department included Louis Wirth, the liberal urbanist who was an out-spoken opponent of restrictive covenants. In meeting with the Board of Trustees committee established to deal with all of the neighborhood issues, Wirth recommended that the university end its support for covenants and support improvements to the housing in the neighborhood as a means of stabilizing it for the continued attractiveness of the University of Chicago as an academic institution. [27]

In fact, in the struggle against restrictive covenants that peaked and achieved success in the post-WWII period, the University of Chicago played as pivotal a role as it had throughout the years as a supporter of the covenants. Many of those who provided the sociological data and arguments against restrictive covenants were alumnae, faculty, or students of the university's School of Sociology, including Charles S. Johnson, Horace Cayton, and St. Clair Drake. They articulated the case against restrictive covenants in the 1930s and 1940s in a variety of books and articles. Charles S. Johnson authored a 1932 study entitled NEGRO HOUSING for President Hoover's 1931 Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership, while Horace Cayton started off the 1940s with a significant article on covenants in his journal SOCIAL ACTION. In their landmark book, BLACK METROPOLIS, published in 1945, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake devoted a goodly portion to an attack on racial restrictive covenants. 28

Several theses of University of Chicago Master of Arts students in the 1940s addressed what one termed "the Negro invasion" of white neighborhoods; in spite of this term, which the author attributed to African-American realtors who intentionally introduced African-Americans into white neighborhoods, the students were generally sympathetic to the African-American case against covenants.[29] A 1946 article in the University of Chicago Law Review questioned the legality of covenants, and was cited in the anti-covenant campaign.[30]

All of this ended up being used in the final assault against restrictive covenants. In the mid-1940s, affected by the change in intellectual attitudes about race catalyzed by the anthropological community and by the attack against Nazism in the war, the NAACP launched an attack on covenants on several fronts. Since its establishment in 1933, the Federal Housing Administration had recommended the inclusion of covenants in the projects that they insured in cities and suburbs. This was one of the targets attacked by the NAACP, and in 1947 the language recommending the covenants was removed from FHA handbooks, although it was correctly charged that the FHA continued to use race as a major criterion in lending. [31]

The NAACP also continued its support in covenant cases before state courts; in 1947, it was assisting in thirty cases in Chicago and ten cases in Michigan, with additional involvement in cases in Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other states. [32]

Most important, the NAACP strategized to carry these cases to the Supreme Court on appeal and to obtain a ruling, unlike those in the earlier Corrigan v. Buckley and Hansberry v. Lee, that would definitely declare enforcement of the covenants as unconstitutional. Drawing on what they referred to as the "Chicago plan" in their case against the covenants, they collected and compiled evidence on the social effects of covenants.[33] Charles Johnson, director of Fisk University's Institute of Race Relations (and, twenty years before, one of the authors of the 1922 report of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations) carried out a study of racial restrictive covenants in five cities, with an intensive look at Chicago and St. Louis. [34] Robert Weaver, of the American Council of Race Relations whose office was in Chicago, wrote THE NEGRO GHETTO in which he condemned covenants as particularly problematic, drawing in part on studies done at the University of Chicago's sociology department. While writing the book he was asked by the NAACP to author a lengthy memo on the social effects of covenants, a memo that was distributed to the lawyers and supporters of the NAACP in Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court case on covenants heard in 1948. [35]

In books, articles, and talks, the themes developed by Johnson, Cayton, St. Clair Drake, and Weaver were repeated over and over. They asserted that restrictive covenants created congestion in the African-American ghettos, causing the conditions that were then used as a basis for charging that African-Americans caused blight. African-Americans were "hemmed in," as Robert Weaver wrote, and denied opportunities that had allowed other ethnic groups to assimilate and achieve success in American society. [36] Their evidence was persuasive enough, and the political climate supportive enough, such that the Truman administration joined in the case as a "friend of the court" on the NAACP side. [37]

Chicago was a center of support for opposition against covenants and in favor of the NAACP effort, as well as being one of the most importance sources of sociological evidence as to the effects of covenants. The American Council of Race Relations, a national organization, was headquartered in Chicago. As mentioned earlier, the Chicago Committee on Racial Equality, CORE's predecessor, advocated against covenants as one of its earliest agenda items. The Chicago Commission Against Religious and Racial Discrimination held a 1946 Conference For the Elimination of Restrictive Covenants at Roosevelt University. The meeting included sessions on the "legislative" and "legal" histories of restrictive covenants, and separate discussions of what lawyers, churchmen, voters, property owners, and organized labor could do to eliminate covenants.[38]

The NAACP strategy was successful in persuading the Supreme Court to hear four combined covenant cases in its 1947 session, opening up the opportunity for a ruling on the constitutinality of the covenants. In January, 1948, the case was heard, and the Supreme Court issued its ruling later in the spring that enforcement of racial restrictive covenants was unconstitutional as it essentially involved the state in the abridgement of 14th Amendment rights. [39]

The results were celebrated by the opponents of covenants, although many were realistic about the tremendous obstacles remaining against real open housing opportunities for African-Americans. In his writings, Robert Weaver, whose most recent experience and research was based on Chicago, revealed ambivalence. Weaver observed that racial covenants had always been effective as a short term constraint on the need for expansion space for the African-American community -- that in the long run, as had been witnessed in Washington Park, the economics of the areas adjacent to the African-American community made it beneficial both for African-Americans to move in and for owners and realtors to seek them as buyers and renters. However, covenants were effective long enough to accelerate deterioration of areas to which African- Americans were restricted. Weaver also described how they distorted the metropolitan real estate market to the detriment of the white middle and upper-class residents. He implied that restrictive racial covenants lent legitimacy to lower class solidarity against African-Americans and to violence. He explained their attractiveness to whites in psychological terms, citing Los Angeles civil right lawyer Loren Miller on the community spirit engendered by covenants:

(Miller)These cases often take on a gala aspect with white neighbors getting a feeling of satisfaction out of the community solidarity that they are presenting. For a moment the anonymity of the city vanishes and the people involved become friends and neighbors in a small town sense. [41]

In this insight lies a significant aspect of racial covenants in American society, as well as their significance to the civil rights movement in Chicago and elsewhere. They offered a state supported instrument for maintaining social stability for threatened white communities, communities that were threatened by the imaginary and real economic losses and fears of social chaos and loss of social status that would result if racial integration occurred.

In terms of those against whom covenants were aimed, their demise as a result of the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer led to one less humiliation of the sort faced by the Hansberry and Motley families, and removed a degree of state sanction from overt housing discrimination. Much as the covenants offered a sense of solidarity to their community supporters in spite of the false promise of permanence, the struggle *against* covenants created a unified post-WWII civil rights movement in cities such as Chicago and nationally that could leverage the Supreme Court victory and the experience it had gained into renewed efforts on other fronts in the 1950s. The more intangible aspects of covenants and of the movement against them should not be lost in the hindsight of how much more of a struggle existed ahead to achieve open housing in the U.S. for African-Americans, a goal still not fully achieved.

Many realized that the end to covenants would not result in an end to the problems of African-Americans finding housing in Chicago or in integrating white neighborhoods. Dempsey Travis, an African- American who became a Chicago real estate developer in 1949 on the heels of the Shelley v. Kraemer decision, was a college student at Roosevelt University when the Supreme Court issued its ruling. Unaware of the issues involved, he rode to school the day after the decision with an African-American bank president who described for Travis the effect of the decision:

Colored people can live in the 61st block on Rhodes with the full sanction of the law. The covenant suit pending against Mary A. Green at 6439 S. Maryland, brought by Vivian McCormick, 6435 Maryland and Bessie McGray, 6417 S. Maryland, to enforce a covenant against Negroes living in that block will be dismissed. (125)

After pursuing a real estate career in the intensely conflictual post-War period in Chicago, Travis would eventually characterize the Supreme Court decision as one of a long series of ineffective state actions in favor of fair and equal housing for African Americans. He especially highlighted the continuing effect of racist redlining within the FHA and VHA as inhibiting African-American movement into white areas in Chicago, in spite of the ruling on restrictive covenants. [40]

Similarly, Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Loren Miller was openly pessmistic, observing in the aftermath of the case that realtors were already engaged in efforts to bolster segregation, and that FHA policy was increasingly problematic.

This pessimism was borne out in the reactions to Shelley v. Kraemer, as well as in the subsequent history of race and housing in the U.S., as so well told by Arnold Hirsch and others, in which racial discrimination and prejudice in housing only worsened. In the same neighborhood about which Hirsch writes, the Woodlawn Property Owners League wrote of the Shelley v. Kraemer case:

We must stop the eastword movement of those people south of Sixty-Third Street. We must refuse to sell to colored people, regardless of whether covenants are valid or invalid. If the colored people are convinced that life in Woodlawn would be unbearable, they would not want to come in. There must be ways and means to keep whites from selling, causing colored not to want to come in because life here would be unbearable. We are going to save Woodlawn for ourselves and our children! [42]

The battle won in Shelley v. Kraemer would thus be fought again by those favoring segregation.


[1]Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[2]Thomas Philpott, The Slum and the Ghetto: Neighborhood Deterioration and Middle Class Reform, Chicago, 1880-1930

[3]There is little information on the first use of restrictive covenants. In Herman H. Long and Charles S. Johnson, People vs. Property: Race Restrictive Covenants in Housing (Nashville: Fisk University Press, 1947), 12, the authors describe the inception of covenants in St. Louis in 1910. In Louis C. Washington, "A Study of Restructive Covenants in Chicago" (University of Chicago, M.A. Thesis, 1948), 2, citations are offered on court cases on covenants in Louisiana in 1914 and in Missouri in 1918.

[4]Alan H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967, 21.

[5]Spear, Black Chicago, 12, Table 1.

[6]Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot in 1919 (New York: Arno Press & the New York Times, 1968; originally published by the University of Chicago Press in 1922), 118-135.

[7]Long & Johnson, People vs. Property, 39-55; Zorita Mikva, "The Neighborhood Improvement Association: A Counter-Force to the Expansion of Chicago's Negro Population" (University of Chicago M.A. Thesis, 1951); Spears, Black Chicago, 22-23, 201-222; Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto.

[8]Washington, "A Study of Restrictive Covenants in Chicago," 1; Clement Vose, Caucasians Only: The Supreme Court, the NAACP, and the Restrictive Covenant Cases (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), 51-52.

[9]Spears, Black Chicago, 209, 217f; Philpott, The Slum and the Ghetto, 211-213.

[10]Vose, Caucasians Only, 3-4; 81-82. Attempts to pass residential zoning ordinances continued into the 1940s. (cite article in NAACP Papers, 1946?)

[11]Philpott, The Slum and the Ghetto, 183.

[12]Ibid., 190-191.

[12a]Vose, Caucasians Only, 17-18:

"The landmark in constitutional interpretation of racial restrictive covenants was in Corrigan v. Buckley, which arose in the federal courts of the District of Columbia and, although dismissed for want of jurisdiction, was the only such case considered by the United States Supreme Court up to 1945. Thirty neighbors, including Corrigan and Buckley, executed an agreement in 1921 which restricted the sale or occupancy of their property to Negroes for twenty-one years. Later, Corrigan violated this by selling his restricted property to a Negro named Curtis. Still wishing to keep Negroes out of the neighborhood by means of the agreement, Buckley applied to the Supreme Court of the District for an injunction to restrain the sale. Corrigan and Curtis replied by filing a motion to dismiss which, in turn, was dismissed by the trial court.

"On appeal, Judge Van Orsdel, for a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, defined the sole issue of the case as the power of the landowners to make and record such a restrictive agreement. The question did not involve the validity of a statute, municipal ordinance, or other public law. There was no discrimination within the civil-rights clauses of the Constitution, because if the Negroes owned the property they too could impose restrictions as to its disposal. Individuals might refuse to sell or lease property if they wished, and the right of Negroes to possess proerty did not allow them to compel its sale. Turning to the specific contention that the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbade racial restrictive covenants, Judge Van Orsdel sserted that it was settled Supreme Court doctrine that the clause inhibited only the power of the state. It did not, he said, apply 'to action by individuals in respect to their property.' It naturally followed that the civil-rights statutes enacted under its provisions 'can afford no more protection than the Constitution itself. If . . . there is no infringement of defendants rights under the Constitution, there can be none under the Statutes. The decree of the lower court granting the injunction was affirmed.

Although the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal in Corrigan v. Buckley, thereby allowing the injunction to stand, it did so with an opinion. The reasons for declining jurisdiction were given by Justice Sanford. He found the questions raised 'so insubstantial as to be plainly without merit and frivolous.' Of the constitutional objections Justice Sanford found none to be relevant or applicable. The Fifth Amendment, he said, 'is a limitation only on the powers of the general government and is not directed against the actions of individuals.' The Thirteenth Amendment, aside from its prohibition of slavery, does not protection Negroes' individual rights. Although the Fourteenth Amendment refers only to state action and the District of Columbia is under exclusive federal jurisdiction, Justice Sanford without remarking on this distinction stated flatly that the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment 'have reference to state action exclusively, and not to any action of private individuals.' In summary, he asserted 'It is obvious that none of these Amendments prohibited private individuals from entering into contracts respecting the control and disposition of their own property.'" (17-18)

"After the Corrigan v. Buckley decision, the highest courts of Kentucky [1937?], Maryland [1938], Oklahoma [1942], Wisconsin [1942], and the intermediate courts of Missouri [1942] and New York [1937] disposed of the constitutional issue on grounds that the Supreme Court had settled the matter once and for all."

[13]Ibid., 191-196.

[13a]Johnson & Long, PEOPLE VS PROPERTY, Table I, 13.

[14]Philpott, 196; Willard Motley, "Let No Man Write Epitaph of Hate for His Chicago," Sun Times, 11 August, 1963, Section 2, 1-4; Jerome Klinkowitz, Ed., The Diaries of Willard Motley, (Ames: University of Iowa Press, 1979), vii-x. Interestingly, Motley does not comment on the convenant case in the diary, although it covered this period.

[15]Dempsey Travis, An Autobiography of Black Politics (Chicago: Urban Research Press, 1987), 66-67; An Autobiography of Black Chicago (Chicago: Urban Research Press, 1981), 15, 204, 208. Travis does not include dates in his description of the Barlett activities, although it appears they precede the 1927 date used by Philpott and others as the date restrictive covenants were adopted in Chicago. Most likely, he is referring to restrictions on deeds in individual buildings that existed in Chicago prior to the adoption of the racial restrictive covenant, which was based on a community-wide inclusion of restrictions into deeds and the provision that one signer of the covenant could sue another for breach.

[16]Frederick B. Lindstrom, "The Negro Invasion of the Washington Park Subdivision" (University of Chicago M.A. Thesis, 1941), 23.

[17]Stewart Winger, "Unwelcome Neighbors," CHICAGO HISTORY, 60-62; Lindstrom, "The Negro Invasion of the Washington Park Subdivision," 24.

[18]Lindstrom, "The Negro Invasion of the Washington Park Subdivision, 9, 23." According to Lindstrom, "This theoretical protection, which was given white residents in the Washington Park Subdivision against Negro competition for homes there, was very real protection from 1933 to April, 1939. (9)

[19]Ben Keppel, The Work of Democracy: Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Cultural Politics of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 22-23. Keppel notes that Hansberry activities and association with the NAACP were enough to bring him to the attention of the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, in 194_.

[20]Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, Black Metropolis (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., New York:, 1945, 184-187.

[21] Robert Nemiroff, ed. TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK (Signet, 1969), 51-52.

[22]Cayton & Drake, BLACK METROPOLIS, 187.

[23]Winger, "Unwelcome Neighbors,"


[25]Winger, "Unwelcome Neighbors," 16.


[27]Winger, "Unwelcome Neighbors," 63.

[28]Charles S. Johnson, NEGRO HOUSING (Washington, D.C: National Capital Press, 1932). It appears as if this is the same as President's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership (1931 : Washington, D.C.) NEGRO HOUSING; REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON NEGRO HOUSING,, Nannie H. Burroughs, chairman; prepared for the committee by Charles S. Johnson; edited by John M. Gries and James Ford. (The President's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, 1932)

See also Horace Cayton, "Negro Housing in Chicago," SOCIAL ACTION,, April 15, 1940; Cayton and Drake, BLACK METROPOLIS,

[29]Lindstrom, "The Negro Invasion of the Washington Park Subdivision"; Washington, "A Study of Restrictive Covenants in Chicago"; Mikva, "The Neighborhood Improvement Association"; and Robert F. Schietinger, "Real Estate Transfers During Negro Invasion: A Case Study" (University of Chicago, M.A. Thesis, 1948).

[30]Harold I. Kahen, "Validity of Anti-Negro Restrictive Covenants: A Reconsideration of the Problem," UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW REVIEW, XII, (Feb, 1945).

[31]>Mark Tushnet, MAKING CIVIL RIGHTS LAW: THURGOOD MARSHALL AND THE SUPREME COURT, 1936-1961 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994>, 86-87, 97;

[32]"Restrictive Housing Cases Argued Before Supreme Court," (Press Release), December 26, 1947, NAACP Papers, Part 5, Residential Segregation (Roll 21).

[33] Marian Wynn Perry to Durward McDaniel, March 29, 1947, NAACP Papers, Part 5, Residential Segregation (Roll 21):

"I am enclosing copies of the minutes of two conferences of lawyers on restrictive covenants. It is hoped that in most cases in the future records will be built up indicating the whole socio-economic background of racial segregation and the effect of court enforcement of restrictive covenants. Typical of the kind of record we would like to see built up is the record which Loring Moore, attorney for the N.A.A.C.P. branch in Chicago is preparing. Mr. Moore is introducing into the record the complaints in thirty pending restrictive covenant cases in his community. He is also introducing a map showing the extent of the areas covered by the covenatns sought to be enforced in those cases. He is getting on the stand to testify as experts Horace Cayton, co-author of

Black Metropolis

and Robert Weaver of the American Council of Race Relations. Both of these men testify as to the social effect of segregation, the economic effect upon the price of land, the over-crowding resulting from segregation, etc. Mr. Moore was fortunate in being able to secure excellent testimony from Mr. Tom Wright, Chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Human Relations, as to the damaging effect which residential segregation had upon race relations in the city, the cost to the city in terms of maintaining police, hospitals, and other social services resulting from such segregation.

"Two purposes are, we believe, served by building up this type of record. The first is to show that the effect of court enforcement of one covenant in on case cannot be viewed in a vacuum but most be seen as creating a situation in which residential zoning is effective in tremendous areas of the city without ever being passed upon by any legislative body or in places where the citizenry can be heard. This side in bringing out the fact that court enforcement on race restrictive covenants has the same effect as the passing of zoning legislation and should therefore be held unconstitutional in the same way as the Supreme Court in

Buchanan v. Worley

held such a zoning ordinance unconstitutional."

[34]Long & Johnson, PEOPLE VS. PROPERTY.

[35]Robert Weaver, THE NEGRO GHETTO, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948), Chapter XIII: "The Villains--Racial Covenants", 231-256.

[36]Robert Weaver, "Hemmed In: The ABCs of Race Restrictive Housing Covenants," American Council on Race Relations, 1945.

[37]Tushnet,MAKING CIVIL RIGHTS LAW, 91-92.

[38]Program, May 10-11, 1946, NAACP Papers, Part 5, "Residential Segregation", Roll 20.

[39] Tushnet, MAKING CIVIL RIGHTS LAW, 94-95.


Both the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration supported the racist climate for years after the 1948 Supreme Court decision on restrictive covenants by refusing mortgages to Blacks moving into white areas such as Park Manor, Chatham, South Shore, Kenwood and Hyde Park. The Veterans Administration made funds available through the G.I. Bill to educate black minds, but under the same bill it was working, in practice, to exclude Blacks from needed housing, most spectacularly in the suburbs.


[41]Robert Weaver, "The Villain--Racial Covenants," in John J. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, Eds., THE RISE OF THE GHETTO, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1971), 114-119.