When James and Mary Hurd bought 116 Bryant Street in 1944, neighbors sued. Neighbors also sued the Hurds’ real estate agent, Raphael Urciolo, who had subsequently sold three more houses on the block to African Americans. All four properties had restrictive covenants. Charles Hamilton Houston represented the Hurds in court, while Urciolo defended himself.
Houston called expert witnesses to testify that race had no scientific basis, that covenants were having deleterious effects on American neighborhoods and society, that housing was extremely scarce for African Americans, and that covenants were no longer keeping the neighborhood white. Houston’s innovative strategy in Hurd v. Hodge did not sway the DC and federal appeals courts, which upheld the Bryant Street covenants. However, the strategy represented a critical turning point in the legal campaign to dismantle segregation, and Appellate Judge Henry Edgerton’s lengthy dissent would also prove influential. In 1947 the Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurd v. Hodge as a companion to a St. Louis case, Shelley v. Kraemer, and a Detroit case, McGhee v. Sipes. The latter would be argued by Houston’s former student, Thurgood Marshall.
With assistance from the NAACP, Howard University Law School, and other academic and legal experts, Houston compiled the most thorough brief of any he had ever prepared for the Supreme Court. The U.S. Department of Justice and numerous advocacy groups supported the appeal, and in May 1948 the decision came down: enforcement of covenants by the courts violated the 14th Amendment, which requires states to treat citizens equally. In DC, which is not a state, enforcing covenants violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Racial covenants also ran contrary to the public policy of the U.S., the Court said.