Covenants and the Law

Race-restrictive covenants have a long and complicated legal history. Most state courts, in an interpretation confirmed by the Supreme Court in Corrigan v. Buckley (1926) held that such restrictive agreements were purely private contracts, and that—in the absence of state action—no constitutional issues were at stake. This interpretation was partially overturned by Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) which held that enforcement of such agreements did constitute state action, and as such violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

The only restrictive covenant case to reach the Iowa Supreme Court, Rice v. Sioux City Memorial Parkway Cemetery (1953), involved a contract for a cemetery plot which specified that “burial privileges accrue only to members of the Caucasian race.” The Court upheld the contract on the grounds that it was a private agreement and that legislative or judicial indifference to the restriction did not constitute state action.

It was not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer the same year, that racial covenants themselves (and not just their enforcement) were found to be a violation of the equal protection clause.