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Living apart: Despite decades of court cases, St. Louis remains one of the most segregated cities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 2, 2009 - Missouri has been at the heart of the nation's story of race from the first chapter. It entered the Union as part of the Missouri Compromise; it drove abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy across the river to Illinois where he was killed, and it deepened the divisions in the Union by claiming Dred Scott for slavery. So it isn't surprising that important chapters of the history of housing segregation played out on Missouri soil.

Yet after decades of efforts by the litigants and lawyers -- J.D. Shelley, Joseph Lee Jones, Dr. Howard Venable, Sam Lieberman and George Vaughn -- St. Louis remains today one of the most segregated cities in America. An analysis of census data from 2000 places St. Louis as the 9th most segregated city in America.

"Someone should be challenging West County and its cities to allow more affordable housing, which would allow minorities to move there," says John Ammann, a Saint Louis University law professor who was involved in suing Valley Park for a housing law targeting illegal immigrants. "It's hard for a lower income African-American family to afford a one-acre lot in Wildwood."

Looking back at the history of racial segregation, it is striking how often the rationales for slavery and segregation were couched in paternalistic language. When the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott remained a slave despite his time on free soil, it wrote that slaves were far better off than the "miserable" African. "We are almost persuaded," the court said, "that the introduction of slavery among us was, in the providence of God ... a means of placing that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations." 

After the Civil War, the nation ratified the 14th Amendment with its promise of equal protection. But when the operators of inns in Jefferson City and the state of Kansas denied accommodations to blacks, the Supreme Court ruled in the civil rights cases of 1883 that the amendment did not prohibit private discrimination.

Early 20th-century St. Louisans left little doubt about what they thought about having black neighbors.

In 1916 -- just before the deadly East St. Louis race riots -- St. Louisans voted by a 3-to-1 margin to enact a segregation ordinance prohibiting anyone from moving into a block where more than three-fourths of the residents were of another race.

Supporters of the initiative once again justified the law as good for blacks, stating it was required "for preserving peace, preventing conflict and ill feeling between the white and colored races in the city of St. Louis, and promoting the general welfare of the city by providing...for the use of separate blocks by white and colored people for residence, churches, and schools."

The St. Louis ordinance -- which was replicated in about a dozen cities from Baltimore to Oklahoma City -- fell by the wayside when the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Louisville in the 1917 Buchanan vs. Warley decision.

But a few years later, the court suggested in another case that restrictive real estate covenants, barring sales of houses to blacks, would be legal because they didn't involve state discrimination.

Those covenants multiplied in St. Louis.

Roger Goldman, a law professor at Saint Louis University, says that "many trust indentures included 'Malays' along with blacks and Jews that couldn't buy in certain neighborhoods, because they were brought here for display in the World's Fair. Another (form of) discrimination that surprises visitors from other cities is the large number of private streets that they see as keeping undesireables out, i.e., blacks," wrote Goldman in an email.

By the end of World War II, blacks in St. Louis were mostly segregated within a 417-block area near Fairground Park, partly because of these restrictive covenants written into the title deed on a piece of property.

J.D. Shelley challenged the covenants when he tried to buy a house at 4600 Labadie with a covenant barring its sale to "persons not of Caucasian race." Neighbors at 4532 Labadie, Louis and Ethel Kraemer, sought to enforce the covenant. James T. Bush Sr., the black real estate agent who had sold the property to the Shelleys, formed an association to pay for the Shelley's court costs. The lawyer for the association was Bush's promising daughter, Margaret Bush Wilson, who went on to have a storied civil rights career.

George L. Vaughn, a noted African-American lawyer, took Shelley's case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Vaughn said he wasn't seeking integration. "Negroes have no desire to live among the white people," he argued. "But we were a people forced into a ghetto with a resultant artificial scarcity in housing." Vaughn noted that 117,000 people were living in an area that had been inhabited by 43,000 in 1910.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union supported Shelley despite the reluctance at the national office. Eugene Buder, a St. Louis lawyer and mainstay of the ACLU, broke the news to headquarters with obvious relish. "I have the difficult task of telling you that our committee has disobeyed orders. Of course, I realize the basis for your suggestion that we give no help in the Shelley case, and I presented all your objections to our committee. They resolved, nevertheless, to file a brief on our own behalf."

In the 1948 decision, Shelley vs. Kraemer, the Supreme Court outlawed judicial enforcement of racial covenants. The involvement of the state courts in enforcing the covenants made this a state action, not just private discrimination, the court said.

A decade later, Buder and the ACLU were busy with new housing discrimination case, this one in the suburb of Creve Coeur. Dr. Howard Phillip Venable, a noted African-American eye doctor, was building a house in Creve Coeur when construction was halted because the city would not grant him a plumbing license.

Suddenly, the city found it had need for a new park, and it condemned the property for a playground. U.S. District Judge Roy Harper, who had an inglorious record for throwing out civil rights cases, tossed Venable's case as well. The park stands today where the late doctor sought to make his home.

A few years later, a black St. Louis bail bondsman had better success. In 1964, Joseph Lee Jones and his wife, Barbara, applied for a "Hyde-Park style" house to be built in the Paddock Woods subdivision of north St. Louis County. Alfred H. Mayer Co. refused to sell the home because Jones was black.

Jones took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Congress had the power to prohibit private as well as state-sponsored discrimination in the sale of property.

The court said that the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution included "the freedom to buy whatever a white man can buy, the right to live wherever a white man can live." The court added, "when racial discrimination herds men into ghettos and makes their ability to buy property turn on the color of their skin, then it ... is a relic of slavery."

Shortly after the Jones decision, the Inter Religious Center for Urban Affairs began planning to build Park View Heights, a project of integrated, subsidized townhouses in an unincorporated area of north St. Louis County where the population north of Interstate 270 was 99 percent white. Local opposition developed and residents incorporated as the city of Black Jack. The new town promptly passed a zoning ordinance that barred construction.

Harper threw out this case as well. He held that there was no proof of a discriminatory intent on the part of the city nor of discriminatory effect on blacks. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis overturned the decision in what Richard Baron describes as "still the best exclusionary zoning outcome I have read." Baron, an ACLU lawyer at the time, is now a noted developer. Sam Lieberman, who had argued the Jones case before the Supreme Court, worked on the Black Jack case with Baron

"The best aspect of the case was the fact that the court overturned Roy Harper," Baron wrote in an email.

Judge Gerald Heaney -- who was just as famous for his pro-civil rights decisions as Harper was notorious for his anti-civil rights rulings -- wrote that when a law was proved to have a discriminatory effect, the burden is on the city to show that the law had a compelling non-discriminatory purpose. Black Jack's claims that the apartments would cause more traffic or crowded schools were not sufficient.

This decade, the ACLU also was involved in challenging the Valley Park ordinance that barred landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. That part of the law was struck down and eventually repealed, although employment provisions were upheld in the federal courts.

Ammann, the law professor involved in the case, says most of his recent cases of housing discrimination have involved discrimination against disabled people. He wrote in an email, "I have been ashamed of many communities and their attitude that they don't want 'those people' living in their neighborhoods. ... 'Those people' are people with Alzheimer's, or developmental disabilities, or addiction problems. I've seen situations where people have opposed group homes for these groups and years later the same people will try to get their loved one into those homes.

"On the racial issue, I have talked to local leaders about whether they would support efforts to build affordable housing in wealthier white suburbs, and they say it's a waste of time because the opposition is so strong. It's a shame that we cave in to the prejudice and throw up our hands.

"From a (sociological) standpoint though, many minority families would say they don't want to live in Chesterfield. It's not where they grew up, they have no connection. So fair housing is hard to achieve."

The 2000 data bear out Ammann's observations. Leland Ware, a former St. Louisan who is a professor at the University of Delaware, points out that the 1968 Fair Housing law was largely a "toothless tiger" for the first 20 years of its existence because of a weak enforcement mechanism. Even after it was strengthened in 1988, racial discrimination against blacks persisted.

In a 2005 academic article he noted that a federal study, based on pairs of real estate testers of different races, found that, "African American homebuyers -- like renters -- continue to face discrimination in metropolitan housing markets nationwide. White homebuyers were consistently favored over blacks in 17 percent of tests."

Social scientists use an "index of dissimilarity" to measure the extent of housing segregation. The higher the 0 to 100 number, the more segregated the community. Numbers above 60 showing high levels of segregation. St. Louis ranked 10th among big American cities, its index dropping slowly from 83 to 74 from 1980 to 2000. (Click here to see study from Southern Illinois University at Edwarsville about current residential segregation.) 

Ware summarizes the progress and lack of progress this way: "The raw oppression ... has largely disappeared. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended the official regime of state-sponsored subordination. Conditions for African-Americans are immeasurably better.

"There are, however, lingering vestiges of segregation, which operate to the detriment of African-Americans, especially those residing in inner-city neighborhoods. One of the most critical of these involves the discriminatory practices of housing providers that perpetuate segregated neighborhoods. Without a change in the operation of the nation's housing markets, African-Americans will never realize full equality."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.