What’s wrong with this picture? That’s what Monica Beckham Holmes and other descendants of J.D. and Ethel Shelley were wondering last January when news photos of the dedication of a new historic marker to replace a stolen one at the Shelley House at 4600 Labadie Ave. showed up in news stories. The photo included Mayor Lyda Krewson, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, various real estate businessmen, housing activists, and the current owner of the national historic landmark.
But there were no Shelleys – nor were any invited.
J.D. and Ethel Shelley’s home was at stake in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case – Shelley vs. Kraemer – that outlawed race-restrictive real estate covenants in 1948. Racial covenants – which were signed by homeowners to perpetually keep their homes from being sold to anyone but Caucasians – created the first draft of housing segregation that we still see today in urban neighborhoods across the country.
The Shelley civil rights case, which unwound right here in St. Louis, is studied by all American law students. The strategy for the case was engineered by Thurgood Marshall and used as the roadmap for 14th Amendment – equal protection – arguments for Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights cases to come. And the case is dissected in hundreds of legal books and scholarly articles.
But the Shelleys themselves have largely been erased from histories of their legal battle that typically feature heroic narratives of the educated middle-class black activists and professionals who steered their case.
The photo of the dignitaries crowding into the photo at the Shelley House was a telling epilogue to a study I just finished in my Washington University master’s program on the Shelleys, in which I try to revive their place in civil rights and housing history after generations of erasure.
My study aimed to shine light on the Shelleys, who have existed in an historic shadow. I followed them from their poverty-stricken Starkville, Mississippi childhood where, U.S. Census data say, they were doing farm labor by the age of five, to the trigger moment of the family’s 1939 departure north when J.D. feared lynching or abuse of his children because he’d crossed the authorities by helping a black girl beaten by the sheriff. I outlined the family’s rapid rise in the booming World War II St. Louis economy into working-class prosperity.
Theirs was an everyman heroism. It involved quiet endurance, working multiple jobs while suffering for three years the anxiety of knowing that they could be forced out of their house at any moment; of rocks thrown through their windows and slurs of graffiti on their home; of the worry that white antagonists were picking on their children.
They also faced the uncertainty of placing their fate in the hands of educated upper-class blacks who engineered the real estate deal that landed them and their investment in legal hot water and then steered their case through the complexities of the courts. Those black proxies for the Shelleys didn’t always hold the family’s best interest– they were working for the larger cause of civil rights and sometimes in the interest of their own profit.
It was evident when Edith Shelley took the witness stand in court in October 1945 to defend against her white neighbors’ effort to force the Shelleys out of the house they’d bought for $5,700 that she didn’t fully understand the case. For example, she didn’t know that the sales price included a $1,000 profit for her church pastor/real estate agent, nor did she understand why the integrated Greater Ville neighborhood with black children playing in some yards could be off limits for her own family.
It’s also uncertain if the Shelleys ever understood that later, when their prominent local black attorney George Vaughn was preparing to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, an array of civil rights organizations – including Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP – urged the lawyer not to be too “soft hearted” about the Shelleys and to let them lose their home because the case was legally weak and could harm the efforts of the larger Civil Rights Movement.
Today, Monica Holmes, the great-granddaughter of the Shelleys, observes that these battling groups really held the Shelleys’ fate “in their hands.” Edith Shelley, a devout Christian who Holmes says spoke in tongues and had spiritual premonitions, might disagree and say that the family’s fate was held by God.
But what stands out in all my research about the Shelleys – who raised five birth children and three of Edith’s much younger siblings – is how their fate was steered by their character compass and their hold to true north: the hard work, perseverance, and faith that kept them afloat in a hostile world, first in the Mississippi lynching environment and later in the mean segregation of St. Louis.
The Shelleys’ only surviving child, Chatlee Williams, 87, lives in Northwoods and suffers severe memory loss. But I found it heartbreakingly touching to hear her answer my question about what she remembers of her parents: “They sing.” Yes, there was always an optimism in the gospel singing that filled the house, recalls Holmes, who grew up in the Shelleys’ home. (She adds that Cardinals games on the radio ran a close second in the sounds of the household.)
The Shelleys themselves, in their quiet walk, did little to elevate their profile. Holmes explains that most of the Shelley family born after their 1948 victory didn’t even know about J.D. and Ethel’s place in history until their former home on Labadie became a National Park Service historic landmark in 1988. At that time a huge parade honored J.D. (Ethel died in 1983) and Holmes describes her shocking realization that her great-grandparents were somebody in national history and the civil rights struggle.
The Shelleys may get some focus Friday at 10 a.m. at the Shelley House at 4600 Labadie Ave. when Clay will announce the designation of the landmark as part of his African American Civil Rights Network Act.
Some participants – including Northside Community Housing Inc. and Rebuilding Together St. Louis, which has contributed $25,000 of the $100,000 in repairs the owners of the Shelley House need to maintain it – say it was an oversight not to have invited the Shelleys in January. It was a hasty event because Clay was in town for the photo op, even though the government shut-down delayed the designation of the site and the weather was too cold to install the new plaque.
In echoes of the Shelleys’ historic erasure, the organizers of Friday’s do-over – the Interior Department and Rep. Clay’s office – mention the Shelley family descendants for special thanks in the printed program, just as their name is the marquee on the house and the landmark Supreme Court case. While they won’t speak, the NAACP – which in 1947 tried to nix the Shelley case – will be at the mic to speak.
Barry Upchurch, of Rebuilding Together St. Louis, invited Holmes and Williams, who plan to attend.
But it’s still uncertain if the Shelleys will actually be in the picture.
Clara Germani, a former editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, received her master’s in American Culture Studies from Washington University last week. Her thesis is a narrative of the Shelleys prior to their Supreme Court case.