Shelley v. Kraemer: Summary, Decision & Significance

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Racially segregated neighborhoods plagued many communities across the country. Most were accomplished by private and legal agreements between homeowners. In this lesson we will see how the Supreme Court dealt with this issue in ''Shelley v. Kraemar''.

Unfair Exclusion

Say you bought a new home only to be told that you can't live in it because 30 years ago, the homeowners signed an agreement to keep you out. Then you find out that the law isn't on your side. Does this seem right? This is the issue the Supreme dealt with in Shelley v. Kraemer.

Facts of the Case

In the 1940s, J.D. Shelley moved his wife and six children to St. Louis, Missouri to escape the racial inequalities they felt in Mississippi. After searching for a new home, they found that many of the homes and neighborhoods had race-based restrictive covenants, which are agreements that limit what the owners can do with the home and land. Many homes were only to be sold to whites.

Racially discriminatory covenants were commonly used to keep minorities out of white neighborhoods.
White Only

Shelley chose a home that contained such a covenant, and the homeowner agreed not to enforce it. Shelley bought the home and moved his family in. Soon after, Louis Kraemer, a homeowner who lived 10 blocks away, sued to enforce the restrictive covenant that had been made in 1908.

The trial court sided with Shelley, saying the covenant was not valid because the record showed the parties to the original agreement intended that the covenant not be effective until signed by all parties in the district, and not all homeowners had signed the agreements.

However, Kraemer appealed, and the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision ruling that the 1911 covenants was properly executed and did not violated the U.S. Constitution. This time the Shelley's appealed, and the Supreme Court accepted the case.

14th Amendment

Before we hear the Court's judgement, let's review some background on the 14th Amendment.

The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 for the purpose of extending fundamental rights found in the Bill of Rights to the states. Prior to the amendment's ratification, those rights were enforceable against the federal government only, and after its passage, the federal government was then able to enforce those basic rights against the governments of the states.

The amendment contains the equal protection clause, which requires that state governments treat everyone equal under the law. This effectively ends discrimination by the government.

The problem for Shelley was that restrictive covenants were entered into by private homeowners, and the government was not involved. Not only that, the Supreme Court has long held that private property and private contract rights should be protected against government intrusion under almost all circumstances.

Issues

The Supreme Court looked at two issues:

  1. Are restrictive covenants that exclude on the bases of race in violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause?
  2. Are these covenants enforceable by the courts?

Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote for the majority, and he began with a reminder that the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause prohibited discrimination base on race. He then discussed previous cases where the Court declared city ordinances that prevented persons from establishing homes in certain areas based on race. These were unanimous rulings that established that segregation by the government is a violation of the 14th Amendment.

However, Vinson then looked at the question of whether private covenants can be declared a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Previous Cases

The Supreme Court had only looked at two previous cases where the court reviewed private covenants.

First was Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), where the Court held that a private covenant that excluded on the basis of race, absent any government involvement, was outside the purview of federal courts to decide because the 14th Amendment only restricts government interference with a person's right.

The other was Hansberry v. Lee (1940), where the court held that a restrictive covenant was invalid as the parties had agreed that the covenants wouldn't take effect unless 95 percent of the homeowners agreed, but the trial court found that too few of the homeowners had signed, thus making the covenants invalid.

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