When Mary Easterwood’s family moved into their home at 4600 Labadie St. about 60 years ago, the neighbors had tried to explain the history behind the house.
“But they couldn’t quite get the story together,” Easterwood said. “As we got older and we started to study, then we found out about the Shelley v Kraemer case,” decided in 1948.
Easterwood’s father, Lenton Morris, had bought the home from another African-American man, J.D. Shelley. When Shelley purchased the home, the title included a racially restrictive covenant – which was an agreement that prohibited the building’s owner from selling the home to anyone other than a Caucasian.
A neighbor sued to keep Shelley’s family from moving into the area. Shelley won the case, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state enforcement of racially restrictive covenants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The Shelley House is now a National Historical Landmark.
“It could be argued that the Shelley House is the single most important and historic piece of architecture directly related to fair housing in the entire United States of America,” said 2018 St. Louis Realtors President Marc Levinson.
"Quite An Event"
On January 18, the St. Louis Realtors Foundation, Northside Community Housing and Rebuilding Together St. Louis held a rededication ceremony to replace the commemorative plaque that was stolen from the front of the home in 2018.
The first time the house was dedicated as a National Historical Landmark was on May 1, 1988, and Easterwood remembered it being quite an event.
“There was a big band, and people came from all over,” she said. “It was shoulder-to-shoulder all the way down the street.”
The ceremony on January 18 drew only about 20 people during a bitterly cold day. However, Easterwood said the house draws people who want to learn more about this civil rights history year-round.
“This is an exciting day for the Greater Ville Neighborhood, for the City of St. Louis, and for everyone who understands that teaching and treasuring our history matters,” U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis) said at the January 18 rededication ceremony.
“The historic legal battle to end restrictive covenants in residential housing was a great victory, not just for the courageous family who lived here but for the fundamental principle that in America where you live should not be determined by what you look like,” Clay said.
The Shelley Story
The two-story brick home was built in 1906. In 1930, J.D. Shelley, his wife Ethel, and their six children migrated to St. Louis from Mississippi to escape the pervasive racial oppression of the South, according to the National Park Service. For a number of years, they lived with relatives and then in rental properties. When they began to look into buying a home, they found that many houses were covered by racially restrictive covenants.
They purchased the house at 4600 Labadie Ave. from an owner who agreed not to enforce the racial covenant. Louis D. Kraemer, owner of another property on Labadie covered by restrictive covenants, sued to enforce the restrictive covenant and prevent the Shelleys from acquiring the title to the building.
The trial court ruled in the Shelleys’ favor in November of 1945, but when Kraemer appealed, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision on December 9, 1946 and ordered that the racial covenant be enforced. The Shelleys then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“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,” stated Colin Gordon in an article for the Missouri Historical Society titled “Deeds of Mistrust.”
At the ceremony, Levinson said that the St. Louis Realtors work to overcome this history.
He said, “Replacing the plaque is just a small gesture of our pledge to encourage and practice fair housing in the great communities of St. Louis.”
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis American, which is a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.