The White Court (1910–21)

Racial Discrimination

In what decision did the White Court strike down a residential segregation law?

The White Court unanimously ruled in Buchanan v. Warley (1917) that white real estate agent Charles H. Buchanan could sell a house to William Warley, the African American head of Louisville’s NAACP branch and the editor of the Louisville News. The suit provided a test case for challenging the constitutionality of Louisville’s residential segregation law, which prohibited the sale of homes to blacks on white blocks and vice versa. (A test case is one in which litigants plan to challenge a law they believe is unconstitutional.) The two men challenged the ordinance as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The city had passed the ordinance to ensure racial harmony, keep the public peace, maintain racial purity, and avoid the deterioration of white-owned neighborhoods.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the ordinance, writing: “The Fourteenth Amendment and these statutes enacted in furtherance of its purpose operate to qualify and entitle a colored man to acquire property without state legislation discriminating against him solely because of color.” The Court recognized the problem of racial hostility but said the answer was not to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights. The Court also rejected the argument that the law was necessary to prevent the deterioration of white-owned property, noting that “property may be acquired by undesirable white neighbors or put to disagreeable though lawful uses with like results.”


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