Make Black History Personal: #1 Civil Rights Case Hits Close to Home

When I took constitutional law in law school, I learned about a controversial civil rights case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. This litigation combined two cases – Shelley vs Kraemer, and McGhee vs. Sipes.

The Shelleys and the McGhees were Black couples in Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, fighting for the right to buy homes in White neighborhoods where the property deeds contained a “restrictive covenant” to prohibit those properties from being sold to Blacks and other minorities. The McGhees lived on Seebaldt Street in my hometown of Detroit.

mcghee house Make Black History Personal: #1 Civil Rights Case Hits Close to Home

The home in Detroit that Orsel and Minnie McGhee had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to live in.

Because the courts in various states couldn’t agree on how to resolve this segregation issue, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became an esteemed Supreme Court justice himself, was part of the legal team who represented  the McGhees.

thurgood marshall Make Black History Personal: #1 Civil Rights Case Hits Close to Home

Civil rights activist and United States Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall

On May 3, 1948, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision. Here’s a video that explains in a little more about the background of the case and the result. In its ruling, the court did not make restrictive covenants illegal but it did prohibit courts from enforcing them. In essence, the court paved the way for people like the McGhees and the Shelleys to buy houses in White neighborhoods regardless of restrictive covenants based on race.

What I didn’t realize until I started writing this post is how closely this case affected our family. In fact, when I did a map search online, it turns out the McGhees lived only three blocks away from my parent’s first house on Pacific Street.

Pacific Street 600x284 Make Black History Personal: #1 Civil Rights Case Hits Close to Home

The purple line shows the path from my parents first house to the McGhees.

I don’t know the date when my parents purchased their house, but it would have been within a year or so of the Supreme Court decision in the McGhee case. (Note to self: make a research trip to the Registrar of Deeds office.) I do know, though, that by the time I was born in 1951, my parents were comfortably settled in that home.

Me with Mom and Dad 1951 Make Black History Personal: #1 Civil Rights Case Hits Close to Home

Me with my parents in 1951 in the living room of their first house a few blocks away from the McGhees.

We lived in the house on Pacific Street until I was six years old. Then my parents moved to another White neighborhood in Detroit. They helped integrate that neighborhood and then another when I was a teenager. I never paid attention to this pattern until now. And I never understood what sacrifices my parents must have made to follow so closely in the footsteps of civil rights pioneers like the McGhees.

Sadly, both my parents are now gone and along with them the opportunity to discover how they felt about dedicating years of their lives to the quiet and consistent pursuit of equal rights for Blacks in America. They make me so proud.

And today – they make me smile because I’m remembering back to my college days when, decked out in my red Afro and bell-bottoms, I tried explaining to my middle class parents about the need for “radical action” to make change. As I look back on those conversations, I’m betting Mom and Dad sat there listening to me and thinking all the while –

Our little apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did she?

How can you make Black history personal?

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Karen Batchelor About Karen Batchelor

Karen Batchelor is a genealogist and founder of where she blogs about more than three decades of climbing her family tree. Learn more about her here and connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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