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Government, Politics & Issues

Historic ‘Shelley House’ Added To Civil Rights Network

Descendants of the Shelley family attended Friday's ceremony, including Melody Davis, center, and Melinda Jones, right.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Descendants of the Shelley family attended Friday's ceremony, including Melody Davis, center, and Melinda Jones, right.

Melinda Jones stands next to her great-grandparents’ former house and shields her eyes against the already-hot morning sun.

The modest two-story brick house in the Greater Ville neighborhood was the backdrop for one of the most important court cases of the civil rights movement, which virtually abolished racially restrictive covenants used to prevent people of color from living in white communities.

The “Shelley House” was added to the African American Civil Rights Network Friday, making it the first property in Missouri to join the register.

“It’s just an amazing experience that I’m here to witness this,” said Jones, who attended the dedication ceremony with other Shelley family descendants.

The St. Louis neighborhood instituted a racially restrictive covenant in 1911 to keep “people of the Negro or Asian race” from living in the community.

The "Shelley House" in the Greater Ville neighborhood was the backdrop of one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases of the Civil Rights era.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
The "Shelley House" in the Greater Ville neighborhood was the backdrop of one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases of the Civil Rights era.

In 1945, a white realtor purchased 4600 Labadie and signed the deed over to J.D. and Ethel Shelley, an African American couple unaware of the restrictive covenant.

The home’s former owner, a white resident of the neighborhood named Louis Kraemer, brought suit to enforce the covenant — a case that eventually landed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In what became a landmark case of the Civil Rights era, the court ruled state enforcement of restrictive covenants was unconstitutional.

“The historic legal battle was a great victory not just for the courageous Shelley family, but for the fundamental principle that in America, where you live should not be determined by what you look like,” said Congressman Lacy Clay, speaking at Friday’s dedication ceremony.

Congressman Lacy Clay speaking at the Shelley House dedication ceremony on May 24, 2019.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Congressman Lacy Clay speaking at the Shelley House dedication ceremony on Friday morning.

Clay cosponsored legislation in 2017 that established the African American Civil Rights Network of properties significant to the struggle for racial equality.

Other speakers included St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

“It’s so important that we understand the most shameful parts of our history,” said Krewson, adding that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

But for the Shelley’s granddaughter, Melody Davis, the battle against racial discrimination is far from over — particularly given the long-term disinvestment in many black St. Louis neighborhoods.

Still, she thinks her grandparents would be proud that their legacy lives on.

“We’re still moving forward, so it’s not something that’s left dead,” said Davis, whose mother was the youngest daughter in the Shelley family.

Lenton and Joannia Morris sit on the front porch of the Shelley house during Friday's dedication ceremony. The couple now owns the historic home.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Lenton and Joannia Morris sit on the front porch of the Shelley House during Friday's dedication ceremony. The couple now owns the historic home.

The home, which is also a National Historic Landmark, joins five other properties in the African American Civil Rights Network, according to the National Park Service:

  • The Lorraine Motel (Memphis, Tennessee) — the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
  • Kennedy-King Park: Landmark for Peace (Indianapolis, Indiana) — the site of an impromptu speech by Senator Robert F. Kennedy on April 4, 1968, which was later credited for preventing a riot following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home (Jackson, Mississippi) — the home of two prominent civil rights activists, Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
  • A.P. Tureaud House (New Orleans, Louisiana) — the home of Alexander Pierre "A.P." Tureaud Sr., a prominent civil rights attorney and legal counsel for the NAACP.
  • Mitchell Jamieson Mural (Washington, D.C.) — a mural depicting African American opera singer Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial, after she was not allowed to perform at Constitution Hall.

The National Park Service is now accepting nominations for additional sites to be included in the African American Civil Rights Network.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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