Michigan Legal Milestones
25. Striking Racial Covenants
The United States Supreme Court rejected racial restrictive covenants that would have prevented Orsel and Minnie McGhee and their family from living where they chose to in Detroit. Dedicated inside on August 12, 1997, and placed outside the Museum of African American History in Detroit.
Sipes v. McGhee (Michigan Supreme Court)
Sipes v. McGhee (U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari)
Complete Text on Milestone Marker
Striking Racial Covenants
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed by Congress after the Civil War, provides in part that the states "shall not deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws." In 1944, Orsel and Minnie McGhee bought a house on Detroit's near west side, a purchase that led to a landmark United States Supreme Court decision affirming the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The house bought by the McGhees, at 4626 Seebaldt, was in a neighborhood whose association agreement included a covenant restricting occupancy to whites only. The McGhees, who were black, were told they had to move. Despite threats and abuse, they refused. The association went to court to have them removed, and the court, upholding the covenant, ordered the McGhees to leave the property within 90 days. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed that decision.
In 1947, the case went to the United States Supreme Court. Arguing on behalf of the McGhees was Thurgood Marshall, then counsel to the NAACP, who two decades later would be appointed a Supreme Court justice. The Court reversed the Michigan decision, ruling that using state courts to enforce the covenant restricting occupancy on the basis of race was unconstitutional as state action that violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court cited as the primary concern of the Fourteenth Amendment "the establishment of equality in the enjoyment of basic civil and political rights and the preservation of those rights from discriminatory action on part of the States based on considerations of race or color."
Orsel and Minnie McGhee had secured not only their home, but the rights of all to buy homes free of restrictive racial covenants.
Placed by the State Bar of Michigan, Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association, and Wolverine Bar Association, 1997.