2213 First Street

Clara Mays bought 2213 First Street in February 1944, after the house she had been renting was sold. Mays defied a racial covenant because she couldn’t find another place for her large household. Especially for black families, housing was in extremely short supply during World War II. Several white and African American households here on First Street and around the corner on W included up to 15 people each, counting lodgers.

White neighbors sued Mays, and a DC court gave her 60 days to get out. She appealed, but the covenant was upheld in Mays v. Burgess (1945) for serving its intended purpose: the blocks east of First Street were “an unbroken white community of nearly a thousand homes under restrictive agreements, most of which are still in effect.” Dissenting Judge Henry Edgerton argued that racial lines were in flux, citing the impending expiration of the covenant on this block and the recent expiration of a covenant on the next block south.

Top civil rights attorneys had been working for decades to bring a covenant case to the Supreme Court, but the Court declined the NAACP’s petition on Mays’ behalf. Mays also lost a second appeal, and when she still could not find another house large enough for her family—including three sisters, six nieces, and a nephew recently discharged from the military—was held in contempt for remaining in the house. An anti-covenant attorney and real estate broker named Raphael Urciolo finally found Mays a new home.

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2213 First Street NW