"Hemmed In": The Struggle against Racial Restrictive Covenants and Deed Restrictions in Post-WWII Chicago

Article excerpt

This article discusses an aspect of Chicago's history of residential segregation that is less well known than others - the flourishing of racial deed restrictions and restrictive covenants in the period from 1900 to 1953. Racially restrictive deed restrictions and covenants were legally enforceable provisions of deeds prohibiting owners from selling or leasing their residences to members of specific racial groups. Although one of the first covenant court cases resulted in a ruling against their constitutionality in California in 1892, in subsequent years, U.S. and state courts ruled that enforcement of covenants was constitutional.1

In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against municipally mandated racial zoning, a practice that had been adopted in cities across the South, including Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk, and Louisville. The Court decided in Buchanan v. Warley that this type of state action setting aside sections of the city for the different races violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal rights protection.2 However, in the North, the ruling spurred the use of covenants, because courts distinguished between the Fourteenth Amendment's applicability to publicly enacted zoning ordinances and the enforcement of privately established racial restrictive covenants.3

Almost a decade later, in 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of covenants again in a Washington, D.C. case. The language in Corrigan v. Buckley led advocates to argue that the Court had effectively acknowledged the constitutionality of covenants. This resulted in state Supreme Courts in Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin and lower courts in Missouri and New York dismissing the issue of constitutionality of covenants. Cities across the United States, especially Chicago, increased their use of these discriminatory instruments.

From 1926 to 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court heard no covenant case. In the 1940 Hansberry v. Lee decision (discussed below), the Court ruled in favor of Chicagoan Carl Hansberry but did not rule on the constitutionality of covenants. Finally, in the 1948 ruling in Shelley V. Kraemer, the Supreme Court ruled that courts could no longer enforce covenants.5

While covenants were only one of many strategies used by Northern whites to fight off racial integration in Northern cities - and were arguably less effective than other means such as violence and outright refusal to sell, rent, or provide real estate financing to African Americans-they are worthy of examination. In some cities, especially Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, covenants attained significant coverage and / or enforcement. In these cities, the dynamics of establishing, enforcing, and resisting covenants involved a complex set of interactions: 1) covenant creation by community organizations in enthusiastic, costly, and time-consuming campaigns; 2) rising awareness of covenants on the part of African Americans and others who refrained from even attempting to acquire housing in covenanted areas; 3) their challenge by African American and other constrained groups through the acquisition and occupancy of covenanted properties; 4) the mobilization of major institutions in the African American community, including life insurance companies and realtors, to assist in challenging covenants; 5) their enforcement by courts, depending on the discretion of individual judges; and 6) the rise of local, state, and national civil rights campaigns in the World War II era to resist the spread of covenants and call for their elimination.

Studying covenants in the 20th Century city offers insight into a range of issues. These include the dynamics of conservative and liberal community organization; the role of race in the residential real estate industry; the institutionalization of racism and resistance to it in the U.S. judiciary at all levels; the growth of the civil rights movement in Northern cities in the 1930s and 1940s; and the personal experiences and responses of people subjected to state-supported discrimination. …