When this stately, turn-of-the 20th century rowhouse in Dupont Circle was sold to an African American couple in violation of a racial covenant that restricted its sale to whites, the house and everyone involved were thrust into a legal battle. The case, Corrigan v. Buckley, decided in 1926, affirmed the constitutionality of racially restrictive covenants, and thereby led white homeowners city-wide to use covenants to control the racial makeup of neighborhoods, as many believed that black “encroachment” would reduce the value of their property. However, the case also caused a backlash, spurring numerous future challenges to racially restricted housing.
The case began in 1922, when Dr. Arthur Curtis and Helen Curtis signed a contract to buy the house at 1727 S Street NW. Just one year before, most of the block’s white residents had signed a restrictive covenant binding themselves and future owners not to sell or rent their properties to “persons of the negro race or blood.” Irene Hand Corrigan, the house’s owner, had herself signed the covenant but chose to sell to the couple anyway, later claiming she did not know they were of African descent. A neighbor, James J. Buckley asked the D.C. Supreme Court to prevent the sale, and when the court agreed, Corrigan appealed. After the appeal failed, the NAACP, which had been looking to bring such a case, represented Corrigan and the Curtises in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. But the Supreme Court declined to hear it, stating that covenants were contracts between individuals and thus not subject to court actions.
Although the Curtises moved to U Street, the 1700 block of S Street rapidly transitioned from white to black as several other buyers defied the covenants and bought houses on the block. In December 1926 after the court decision, Irene Corrigan sold her house to a white buyer, only for it to be sold the next day to a black couple.
The NAACP continued to battle racial covenants for more than two decades until the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelley v. Kraemer decided that the enforcement of racial restrictions violated the Constitution. Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston who argued Hurd v. Hodge in 1947 (D.C.’s companion case to Shelly v. Kraemer) had himself, twenty years earlier moved with his family to the 1700 block of S Street.