RESTRICTIVE COVENANT Prior to 1948, restrictive covenants were legal devices used to perpetuate racial residential segregation in the United States. Most common in large northern metropolitan areas (especially in middle-class white neighborhoods), the restrictive covenant was a private contract between the buyer and seller of residential property in which the buyer pledged never to resell his property to members of certain racial, religious or ethnic groups. More often than not, the restrictive covenant was inserted into the property deed itself and, furthermore, was considered to be binding upon all future owners of the property.
Prior to the "Great Migration" of southern blacks to northern cities during the first World War, most restrictive covenants were specifically aimed at non-Christians and members of certain ethnic groups. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, one of the most noted restrictive agreements was the so-called Van Sweringen Covenant, designed to prohibit Jews from settling in Shaker Heights, Cleveland's plush suburb for the affluent which had been developed by Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen in the early twentieth century. With the large influx of southern blacks into the Cleveland area during and immediately after the war, however, the Van Sweringen Covenant was directed at keeping the African Americans out. Similarly, in 1940 it was estimated that nearly 80 percent of all real estate in Chicago was "protected" by restrictive covenants.
In 1948, the Supreme Court of the United States in Shelley v. Kraemer held that restrictive covenant arrangements were unenforceable in state courts. Although the Court conceded that the Fourteenth Amendment "erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful," it stated that the "coercive power of government" [i.e., action by a state court] may not be used to deny the enjoyment of property rights "on the grounds of race or color." Such a denial, the Court affirmed, would constitute a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Hurd v. Hodge (1948), and Barrows v. Jackson (1953) reenforced the Court's earlier stand and further nullified the effectiveness of restrictive covenants.