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Shelley House joins ranks of African American civil rights landmarks

GREATER VILLE – The family living at 4600 Labadie Avenue in the Greater Ville neighborhood had a host of people in their front yard Friday morning, but it wasn’t for a Memorial Day Weekend celebration.

Folks were there to witness and celebrate the historic Shelley House’s being officially added to the national African American Civil Rights Network.

The Shelley House is the namesake of J.D. and Ethel Shelley, who, when trying to move into the neighborhood in 1948, were met with opposition from white neighbors.

The Shelleys fought back against the neighbors, Louis and Fern Kraemer, and a legal battle, Shelley v. Kraemer, ensued. The Shelley family won the U.S. Supreme Court case, a landmark decision that ruled racially restrictive housing covenants illegal.

Because of the Shelleys’ historic fair-housing thrust, Lenton and Joannia Morris were able to buy the home in 1968 free of a racially motivated covenant.

The Morrises, now in their 80s, watched Friday’s dedication in their front yard from their porch as descendants of the Shelley family flanked the porch steps.

“I’m very proud to be a part of national black history,” said the Morrises’ daughter, Mary Easterwood, who was 5 when they moved into the house after her family migrated from Mississippi, where her father had been born on a farm.

Coincidentally, the Shelleys too were Mississippi migrants, who left the South in search of a life free of racial oppression.

When the Morrises moved into the home, they had no idea about the racism the Shelleys had fought and knocked out, allowing the Morrises to freely move into the neighborhood.

“From time to time we would hear stories, but we really didn’t know until a confectionery story owner that used to be around the corner told us,” Easterwood said.

“It’s nice, we enjoyed it,” Lenton Morris quietly said of the ceremony, emceed by Michael Middleton, deputy chancellor emeritus and professor emeritus of law at the University of Missouri.

“The Shelley House is more than just a historic point along the way in the struggle for freedom and civil rights, it represents our demand that the promises in our constitution ring true — not just for some Americans but all Americans, and that’s what today is all about,” said Middleton, who has fought for civil rights in courtrooms as an attorney and in numerous other capacities.

In 2018, the African American Civil Rights Network Act, a bill authored by Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., was signed into law. It authorizes David Bernhardt, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, whose department includes the National Park Service, to establish a program to preserve and protect the memory of people in places that were significant in the struggle to secure equal rights for African Americans between 1939 and 1968.

In addition, the legislation directs the Interior secretary to identify and create a national of historic sites, stories, research facilities and educational programs connected to the modern African American civil rights movement.

“The historic legal battle to end restrictive covenants in residential housing was a great victory — not just for the courageous Shelley family, but for the fundamental principle that in America, where you live should not be determined by what you look like,” Clay said.  He also thanked the St. Louis Realtors Association for their part in the Shelley House recognition.

Noting that there’s still work to done in fair housing, he added, “Homeowners should be able to live together in harmony without discrimination and hate.”

Today, young Americans, he said, “find it difficult to believe that racial segregation was once considered normal and necessary in some parts of the United States, including right here in St. Louis.”

Monica Beckham, the great-granddaughter of the Shelleys, said the designation was very important to her family, others of whom also attended. Among them was the Shelleys’ daughter Chatlee Williams.

“We thought we were going to have to do this ourselves, so for the congressman to step up and actually do it, we appreciate it,” Beckham said.

Aurelia Skipwith, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior, who represented Bernhardt at the ceremony and read from the official declaration from the office, said she was a St. Louis native and personally knew the Shelley House story.

“The strength of the Shelley family to face the adversity should remain an inspiration to each of us today, and I hope this dedication serves as a means to amplify this history,” Skipwith said.

St. Louis Branch NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt said, “The unique thing about Shelley v. Kraemer is that Shelley kicked open the door of the American dream of homeownership.”

Robert Bax, president of the St. Louis Realtors Association, who spearheaded preserving renovations to the home and rededicated a plaque earlier this year, called the Shelley House the single most important piece of architecture directly related to fair housing in the entire United States.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson took to the podium, saying, “It is so important that we understand the most shameful parts of our history so that we can ensure that we are constantly remembering those shameful days and reminding ourselves not to continue any of those practices.”

Alderman Sam Moore, 4th Ward, noted other significant homes in the neighborhood that are also deserving of recognition because of their former residents: Homer G. Phillips, Chuck Berry, Robert Guillaume and Grace Bumbry.

The Shelly House was first dedicated as a historic site on May 1, 1988, on the fortieth anniversary of the case.

Bill Beene Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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