Civil Rights Tour: Legal Campaigns - Hurd v. Hodge, Landmark Supreme Court Case

116 Bryant Street NW

The James and Mary Hurd house at 116 Bryant Street in Bloomingdale was at the center of the Supreme Court's landmark 1948 decision ending court enforcement of racially restrictive real estate covenants. The case, Hurd v. Hodge, was DC's companion to St. Louis and Detroit cases known together as Shelley v. Kraemer.

Beginning in the 1920s, DC's Bloomingdale neighborhood had become a national epicenter of legal challenges to covenants as Blacks attempted to move to restricted houses in the neighborhood near unrestricted blocks where African Americans already lived. The proximity of Howard University made this area especially attractive to middle class Black families. Howard University Law School, meanwhile, generated a cadre of well-trained civil rights attorneys who were prepared to fight housing discrimination in the courts.

Number 116 Bryant Street was the first of four  houses on this block with racial restrictions that were  purchased and resold to Black families by real estate broker Raphael Urciolo in the early 1940s. White neighbors, Lena and Frederic Hodge sued Urciolo and the new owners, James and Mary Hurd, for violating the covenant which barred the house’s sale to African Americans. Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston amassed extensive contextual evidence to show that covenants in Bloomingdale no longer served their intended purpose of keeping the neighborhood white and were depressing home values in an area where African Americans were willing to pay more than market rate.

Despite Houston's efforts in this and several other Bloomingdale cases, the DC courts upheld the covenant, but the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case as a companion to Shelley. Loren Miller and Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorneys for Shelley and the Detroit case, McGhee v. Sipes, successfully argued that court enforcement of racial covenants violated the 14th Amendment. However, because DC is not a state and not necessarily subject to the 14th Amendment, the ruling in Hurd v. Hodge was based on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which requires the federal government to treat its citizens equally.