The forgotten civil rights case that stopped the spread of Jim Crow

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tags: civil rights, Jim Crow, Supreme Court



Elizabeth A. Herbin-Triant is an assistant professor in the history department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she is completing a book on efforts to legislate residential segregation in early twentieth-century North Carolina.

As Nov. 8 and the anniversary of the presidential election approaches, Americans who care about civil rights will no doubt look back in dismay. From the election of a man who discriminated against black renters, to the appointment of an attorney general with a dismal civil rights record, to the unveiling of a travel banfor people coming to the United States from Muslim-majority countries, it has been a painful year.

But there is another anniversary coming up that offers hope to us: Nov. 5, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Buchanan v. Warley. This little-remembered decision dealt a blow to Jim Crow at a time when segregation was flourishing in the South.

In 1914, Louisville implemented an ordinance prohibiting African Americans from occupying houses on majority-white blocks and whites from occupying houses on majority-black blocks. The ordinance was part of a regional trend. In 1910, Baltimore became the first to enact such an ordinance, followed by about a dozen other cities across the South over the next few years.

The lengthy title of Louisville’s ordinance contained its rationale: “An ordinance to prevent conflict and ill-feeling between the white and colored races in the city of Louisville, and to preserve the public peace and promote the general welfare, by making reasonable provisions requiring, as far as practicable, the use of separate blocks, for residences, places of abode, and places of assembly by white and colored people respectively.”

The “conflict” that city leaders sought to avoid was generally caused by white homeowners trying to drive off black home buyers. Tension arose not so much from having African Americans nearby — it was common for wealthier white families in the South to have black live-in servants, a situation that the Louisville ordinance allowed — as from having them nearby as equals. The ordinances were also meant to protect the value of white-owned property, which whites tended to dump on the market as soon as African Americans moved into their neighborhoods. ...




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