Historically, from the end of the Civil War, the United States moved toward a legally entrenched system of racial segregation upheld by a series of court cases beginning with the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. These cases fostered racial separation by holding that private invasion of individual rights was not prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This meant that private citizens could legally enter into contracts respecting the control and disposition of their own property, including racial restrictive covenants limiting use and occupancy to persons of the Caucasian race.
A racial restrictive covenant was a mutual agreement entered into by a group of property owners not to sell, rent, lease, or otherwise convey a property to blacks or other minorities. The agreement frequently included not only the property owner but other cooperating parties as well, such as a real estate board or exchange or a neighborhood improvement association.
Between 1910 and 1940, the non-white population of St. Louis increased 150 percent However, racial restrictive covenants limited the black population to small enclaves of city housing which became increasingly substandard due to overcrowding. By the time the J.D. Shelleys migrated to St. Louis with their six children in 1930, the housing shortage for blacks was acute.
The Shelleys lived first with relatives in St. Louis and then in overcrowded, inadequate rental quarters in the segregated part of the city. But, in 1945, with the help of a black real estate agent, they purchased a home at 4600 Labadie.
The owners of the property were willing to sell to the Shelleys, and they were desperate enough to buy, despite a neighborhood covenant prohibiting the sale of properties to any member of the "negro or mongoloid race" under penalty of suit by the other property owners and forfeiture of title should the covenant be upheld in court. Steeling themselves for almost certain trouble ahead, the Shelleys purchased the property and moved in.
The Louis D. Kraemers, owners of other property on Labadie covered by the restrictive covenant, sued in the St. Louis Circuit Court to restrain the Shelleys from taking title to the property. The trial court held for the Shelleys in November 1945. The Kraemers appealed, and the Missouri Supreme Court, on December 9, 1946, reversed the trial court and directed that the terms of the racial covenant be enforced.
The Shelleys then appealed to the United States Supreme Court and, on May 3, 1948, the Court rendered its landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, holding that racial restrictive covenants cannot be enforced by the courts since this would constitute state action in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The greatest achievement of Shelley v. Kraemer was to reinstate the viability of the Fourteenth Amendment, after 52 years, and render the doctrine of "separate but equal" vulnerable to future successful legal attack.
After announcing the designation of the Shelley House as a NHL, Jim Charleton, of the History Division of the National Park Service, stated, "because of the decision of the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer, the property [the Shelley House] has acquired national significance. It is symbolic of the freedom of all Americans, and all races, to own property without restriction by state or federal government and is, therefore, of exceptional importance."
The significance of the Shelley case and its impact upon American
life has been and is profound.