Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1948: The U.S. Supreme Court sides with Detroit Black homeowners

By: - May 3, 2022 3:25 am

Orsel McGhee Home in Detroit | Ken Coleman

On May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a set of decisions that allowed a Black family in Detroit to remain in their home after a white neighborhood association moved to force them out. 

The property deed connected to Orsel and Minnie McGhee’s 4626 Seebaldt Street west side home, which they purchased in 1944, stated that Blacks were not permitted to occupy the 1,300-foot, four-square-style dwelling. It read: “This property shall not be used or occupied by any person or persons except those of the Caucasian race.” Such language was commonly referred to as restrictive covenants. 

It occurred at a time when housing for whites and Black was scarce and few residential units were constructed because of the country’s economic focus on winning World War II. Nonetheless, Detroit’s African American population doubled, from 149,000 in 1940 and 300,000 in 1950. 

Orsel McGhee Home in Detroit | Ken Coleman

The McGhees lost proceedings at the Detroit Recorder’s Court and the Michigan Supreme Court level. However, at the U.S. Supreme Court level, the majority in Shelley v. Kramer and in McGhee v. Sipes affirmed the right of individuals to make restrictive covenants but ruled that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause prohibited state courts from enforcing such contracts. On the same day, the nation’s high court ruled in Urciolo v. Hodge that restrictive covenants could not be enforced by federal courts. 

The effect was a victory for the McGhees. Former Detroit Mayor and Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy, a Franklin D. Roosevelt-nominated U.S. Supreme Court justice, voted in the majority in the Shelley v. Kramer case that directly impacted the McGhees. 

In 1925 and 1926, Murphy presided as a Detroit Recorder’s Court judge over the seminal trials involving Black physician Ossian Sweet who had faced charges in connection with the fatal shooting of Leon Breiner, a white man who had trespassed on Sweet’s property in hostile fashion. 

Breiner and others had protested Sweet’s purchase of a home in an all-white Detroit neighborhood. The first trial in 1925 ended in a hung jury. In the second trial the following year, Sweet, his brother, Henry Sweet, and other family and friends were acquitted of the charges.

Thurgood Marshall, then a NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney, argued on behalf of the McGhee family. Reggie McGhee, Orsel and Minnie’s grandson, praised Marshall for his effort in a 1993 Detroit Free Press story. 

“Obviously, my grandparents thought very highly of Thurgood Marshall,” he said. “He was not only a great attorney. Thurgood Marshall was a great human being.” 

Marshall later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967 — the first African American to serve in the post. He died in 1993. Orsel McGhee died in 1963; Minnie McGhee passed away in 1981. 

State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) | Anna Gustafson

State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) has sponsored the “Prohibited Restrictive Covenants Act.” House Bill 4416 would prohibit deed restrictions on the basis of race, sex, religion and other protected classes.

“Even though housing discrimination is illegal, deeds across the state still include archaic language prohibiting African Americans, Jewish Americans or women from owning property and living in certain communities,” said Anthony. 

A Michigan Historical Marker was erected at the home in 1983, which stands today. An effort is being made to secure the property on the National Register of Historic Places. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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