Deeds of Mistrust

3, May 2017

Across the first half of the 20th century, realtors and white homeowners used restrictive deed covenants to stem African Americans' “invasion” of American cities. Such covenants bound those who signed them, as well as subsequent owners, to limit whom a property could be sold to and who could live there. The covenants commonly employed in St. Louis prohibited what local realtors defined as two noxious uses of property: the erection or operation of “any slaughterhouse, junk shop, or rag picking establishment” and the sale or lease “to a negro or negroes.” In its May 3, 1948, ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer, the U.S. Supreme Court timidly struck down the practice of restrictive covenants, holding that state enforcement of such restrictions—but not the private agreements themselves—violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Blue map showing distribution of St. Louis's Negro population based on the 1930 censusMap showing the distribution of St. Louis's Negro population based on the 1930 census. Missouri History Museum.

The Shelley case, which originated on Labadie Avenue on the near-north side of St. Louis, is an important chapter in the history of civil rights. But, like other legal milestones of the African American freedom struggle, its impact was muted by both old motives and new tactics. The covenants themselves were but one legal instrument representing realtors’ determination to protect the color line. St. Louis’s covenants echoed and reinforced other longstanding restrictions embedded in the practice of private realty. Following the Shelley decision, local realtors recommended “various schemes for circumvention,” and the St. Louis chapter of the Urban League lamented that “all sorts of devices and practices”—ranging from mortgage redlining to intimidation—worked to sustain the restrictions.

Black-and-white photo of the Shelley familyThe Shelley family in their home at 4600 Labadie Ave. Image courtesy of the Copeland Collection and the book Olivia's Story: The Conspiracy of Heroes behind Shelley v. Kraemer (2010).

The most damaging of these “devices and practices” were local and federal housing policies that sustained the spirit and intent of restrictive covenants. Local zoning in St. Louis and elsewhere was often conceived as a complement or successor to deed restrictions in which exclusionary land use and building standards sustained segregation by race and class. Indeed, the Shelley decision sparked a flurry of incorporation and zoning in the St. Louis suburbs—much of it animated by a desire to tighten the “white noose” around the African American neighborhoods of north St. Louis. Federal housing policies, including the early history of public housing and the new mortgage-subsidy programs launched in the late 1930s, also undermined the Shelley decision. Lacking the capacity to survey cities themselves, New Deal housing officials turned to local real estate and finance interests, whose guiding motive was the maintenance of racial segregation. The textual area descriptions that accompanied the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s “residential security maps” echoed private real estate appraisals of the era. These documents used the threat of racial “incursion” as the primary marker of property value and leaned on the strength (or weakness) of local restrictions such as race-restrictive deed covenants.

For these reasons, the Shelley decision did little to break the link between race and housing in St. Louis. Local segregation, indelibly marked by the so-called Delmar Divide between north and south St. Louis, didn't subside after 1948; St. Louis was just as segregated in 1980 as it had been four decades earlier. As federal policy drew housing investment to the suburban fringe, housing stock and housing values in north St. Louis collapsed. The city’s historically African American census tracts, surrounded on all sides by covenants like the one at issue in Shelley, had a population of more than 100,000 in 1950. Today those streets are a patchwork of building shells and vacant lots, and the population is less than 15,000.

Black-and-white photo of the Shelley home at 4600 Labadie Ave.The house at 4600 Labadie Ave. was the center of the Shelley v. Kraemer case. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Missouri History Museum.

All of this, in turn, opened a gap between both black and white homeownership and black and white wealth. In the generation after Shelley, white families bought homes at higher rates and on better terms; they also bought them earlier in life and in neighborhoods where housing value appreciated reliably. Locally this meant flight from the neighborhoods surrounding Labadie Avenue to cul-de-sacs in the suburbs of St. Louis County. Black families, battling legal restrictions, systematic discrimination, and violence, had no such means of escape—even as the public goods, public safety, and fiscal capacity collapsed around them. They were trapped in the segregated neighborhoods of north St. Louis, surrounded by declining property values and facing limited mobility for the next generation.

Alongside the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, Shelley v. Kraemer upended the core assumptions of the Jim Crow era and marked an important pivot between the cautious legalism of the early civil rights movement and the emergence of broad-based activism in the 1950s and 1960s. But the gains were slow to come and—like the battle over school desegregation—not always sustainable. Tellingly, almost 20 years to the day after the Shelley decision, the Supreme Court took up another case involving race and housing from the greater St. Louis region. The nation’s highest court finally prohibited discrimination in private real estate transactions with its decision in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), but by this point, most of the damage to St. Louis’s African American families and neighborhoods had been done.

—Colin Gordon, Author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

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