About the Author

Katherine Mellen Charron is an Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University. She is the author of the award-winning Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark (UNC Press, 2009), and the co-editor of Recollections of My Slavery Days by William Henry Singleton (1999). Her teaching and research interests include African American, Women's, and Southern history.

Jim Crow Segregation: The Difficult and Anti-Democratic Work of White Supremacy

Excerpt from Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson (1948)


This excerpt reveals how de facto segregation affected African Americans outside of the South. In 1945, the Shelley family purchased a home in St. Louis, MO, and a nearby white resident sued to prevent them from taking possession of the property based on a 1911 racially restrictive housing covenant. The U.S. Supreme Court considered Shelley v. Kraemer with a companion case stemming from Detroit, MI. Lawyers for the white plaintiffs argued that such restrictive covenants could potentially be applied to white people and were therefore not unconstitutional. The cases hinged on the question of whether private property owners could seek to enforce restrictive housing covenants through the courts.

Writing the opinion, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson allowed that private parties could voluntarily agree to race-based property restrictions. However, judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants represented state action and thus violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The opinion also underscores the Court's concern with historical context, which would emerge as a major issue in the Brown decision six years later.

(Note: The ellipses in this quote represent deleted footnotes and/or additional court case citations as well as some sentences.)

Excerpt from Shelley v. Kraemer: We hold that in granting judicial enforcement of the restrictive agreements in these cases, the States have denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws and that, therefore, the action of the state courts cannot stand. We have noted that freedom from discrimination by the States in the enjoyment of property rights was among the basic objectives sought to be effectuated by the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. That such discrimination has occurred in these cases is clear. Because of the race or color of these petitioners they have been denied rights of ownership or occupancy enjoyed as a matter of course by other citizens of different race or… color…The Fourteenth Amendment declares 'that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States, and, in regard to the colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed, that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of their color…Only recently this Court has had occasion to declare that a state law which denied equal enjoyment of property rights to a designated class of citizens of specified race and ancestry, was not a legitimate exercise of the state's police power but violated the guaranty of the equal protection of the laws...Nor may the discriminations imposed by the state courts in these cases be justified as proper exertions of state police power....
Respondents urge, however, that since the state courts stand ready to enforce restrictive covenants excluding white persons from the ownership or occupancy of property covered by such agreements, enforcement of covenants excluding colored persons may not be deemed a denial of equal protection of the laws to the colored persons who are thereby affected…This contention does… not bear scrutiny. The parties have directed our attention to no case in which a court, state or federal, has been called upon to enforce a covenant excluding members of the white majority from ownership or occupancy of real property on grounds of race or color…
Nor do we find merit in the suggestion that property owners who are parties to these agreements are denied equal protection of the laws if denied access to the courts to enforce the terms of restrictive covenants and to assert property rights which the state courts have held to be created by such agreements. The Constitution confers upon no individual the right to demand action by the State which results in the denial of equal protection of the laws to other individuals. And it would appear beyond question that the power of the State to create and enforce property interests must be exercised within the boundaries defined by the Fourteenth Amendment…
The historical context in which the Fourteenth Amendment became a part of the Constitution should not be forgotten. Whatever else the framers sought to achieve, it is clear that the matter of primary concern was the establishment of equality in the enjoyment of basic civil and political rights and the preservation of those rights from discriminatory action on the part of the States based on considerations of race or color. Seventy-five years ago this Court announced that the provisions of the Amendment are to be construed with this fundamental purpose in mind. Upon full consideration, we have concluded that in these cases the States have acted to deny petitioners the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Having so decided, we find it unnecessary to consider whether petitioners have also been deprived of property without due process of law or denied privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States.
For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Missouri and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Michigan must be reversed.


Shelley v. Kraemer 334 U.S. 1 (1948). Accessed April 6, 2011.