Civil Rights Tour: Legal Campaigns - Clara Mays, Racial Covenants Defied

2213 1st Street NW

"Democracy, hell! There is no democracy if a citizen can be restrained from living in property simply on the basis of her color. " (Judge James A. Cobb, Baltimore Afro-American, June 9, 1945)

In February 1944 a federal employee named Clara Mays purchased the house at 2213 First Street NW in DC's Bloomingdale neighborhood. Despite warnings she’d be taking a risk in buying the house because a racial covenant barred its sale to African Americans, Mays went ahead anyway because she couldn’t find anything else to rent or buy. Housing was in extremely short supply during World War II, especially for black Washingtonians. Sure enough, white neighbors sued Mays for violating the covenant, and in November 1945 a DC court took the plaintiffs' side and ordered Mays to vacate her house within 60 days. Top civil rights attorneys associated with Howard University School of Law filed an appeal on her behalf, but were unsuccessful in overturning the lower court’s ruling. The US Supreme Court declined to hear the case; it had consistently rejected such appeals by the NAACP for almost two decades. 

In Mays v. Burgess, the appeals court declared that First Street, which was still exclusively white from T Street to Michigan Avenue, remained an effective racial barrier. The blocks east of First Street, stated US Court of Appeals Chief Justice Lawrence Groner, “are an unbroken white community of nearly a thousand homes under restrictive agreements, most of which are still in effect.” The court rejected arguments that black residents faced a housing shortage; that covenants were depressing property values since black buyers regularly paid far more than whites did for housing; and that Bloomingdale was no longer an exclusively white neighborhood. As evidence that racial lines were in flux, a covenant signed by neighbors on the 2200 block of First Street would soon complete its 21-year term, and one on the next block expired during the period in which Mays v. Burgess was being litigated.

Clara Mays was held in contempt of court for refusing to vacate the house when she couldn’t find another place to move with her extended family of three sisters, six nieces, and a nephew.  Although a Supreme Court review of restrictive covenants was still a few years off, Mays v. Burgess was a huge step forward. As dissenting appellate judge Henry Edgerton wrote, “It would seem to be unsound policy for a court . . . to enforce a privately adopted segregation plan which would be unconstitutional if it were adopted by a legislature.”