Corrigan v. Buckley

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Corrigan et al. v. Buckley
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 8, 1926
Decided May 24, 1926
Full case nameCorrigan et al. v. Buckley
Citations271 U.S. 323 (more)
46 S. Ct. 521; 70 L. Ed. 969
This decision dismissed any constitutional grounds for challenges racially restrictive covenants and upheld the legal right of property owners to enforce these discriminatory agreements.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William H. Taft
Associate Justices
Oliver W. Holmes Jr. · Willis Van Devanter
James C. McReynolds · Louis Brandeis
George Sutherland · Pierce Butler
Edward T. Sanford · Harlan F. Stone

Corrigan v. Buckley, 271 U.S. 323 (1926), was a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1926 that ruled that the racially restrictive covenant of multiple residents on S Street NW, between 18th Street and New Hampshire Avenue in Washington, D.C., was a legally binding document which made the selling of a house to a black family a void contract.[1] This ruling set the precedent upholding racially restrictive covenants in Washington; soon after this ruling, racially restrictive covenants flourished around the nation.[2]


As a result of Buchanan v. Warley (1917), explicit government-instituted racial segregation could not be enforced,[2] but neighborhoods were still very segregated. White homeowners lived mostly in suburban neighborhoods, while blacks occupied a great deal of the inner city. In the aftermath of Buchanan, other less explicit methods to force and maintain segregation were created, such as racially restrictive covenants. (Another tactic, exclusionary zoning that was not explicitly racial in description but maintained de facto racial segregation, was upheld in Euclid v. Amber (1926).) These covenants were documents drawn up by members of a neighborhood, and stated that the signers would not sell their homes to any person that was nonwhite. The agreements were instituted on a private scale, so they had never had to face justification from the court system. Many citizens that signed the papers were afraid of blacks moving in and lowering their property values. The whites gave numerous reasons for how the exclusion of blacks was logical and understandable, but in the end the reasons were used as a façade to cover up the racism that was still prevalent at that time. Washington had always been a racially segregated city, and one such covenant was signed for the block on S Street NW between 18th Street and New Hampshire Avenue.[2]

The covenant signed by John J. Buckley and Irene H. Corrigan


The case Corrigan v. Buckley resulted from an infringement upon a covenant. An agreement was made in 1921 by thirty white homeowners that none among them would sell, rent, or allow blacks to obtain their land by any means.[3] In 1922 Irene Corrigan broke the restrictions put in place by the covenant. Corrigan sold her land to a black couple, Helen and Dr. Arthur Curtis.[3] Corrigan vs. Buckley went through a five-year court case before finally being settled by the Supreme Court in 1926. Buckley and the offense hoped that since the covenant was a written and signed document that it would be considered viable in a court of law. Curtis and Corrigan "moved to dismiss the bill on the ground that the covenant deprived the negro of property without due process of law, abridged the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, and denied him the equal protection of the law."[3] Corrigan and Curtis argued that not selling her house would be a violation of Curtis' civil rights, while Buckley argued that the contract was binding and that Corrigan had no right to break it.

The District Supreme Court sided with Buckley, saying that legal segregation happened all around D.C. and was a legal practice. The D.C. Court of Appeals also sided with Buckley, saying that African Americans also had the ability to exclude others from the neighborhoods that they lived in so it didn't discriminate against them and thus didn't violate Curtis' civil rights.[4] Both courts used the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson to state their case which legalized segregation as long as the separate races had equal facilities.

The NAACP lawyers kept the appeals process going to the Supreme Court. They cited that the racially restrictive covenants would "drive colored folk out of Washington."[2] Once again, the court sided with Buckley. Justice Sanford delivered the decision saying, "in the absence of any substantial constitutional or statutory question giving us jurisdiction of this appeal under the provisions of section 250 of the Judicial Code, we cannot determine upon the merits the contentions earnestly pressed by the defendants in this court that the indenture is not only void because contrary to public policy, but is also of such a discriminatory character that a court of equity will not lend its aid by enforcing the specific performance of the covenant."[5] The ruling meant that the purchase that Curtis had made on the house was now void, and that the covenant was upheld.


By upholding the dismissal of the case, the Supreme Court set the precedent that racially exclusive covenants were acceptable, and not prohibited by law.[6] This led to the spread of covenants throughout the D.C. area. In the years following the case, petition covenants quickly spread to many white neighborhoods in D.C. Hundreds of lots signed onto petition covenants in 1927, the year after Corrigan v. Buckley. The covenants were a non-federally mandated form of segregation, and the decision in the Corrigan v. Buckley case seemed to take a few steps back in the progress concerning black civil rights in the United States.

One big impact of the Corrigan v. Buckley case was on the neighborhood on S Street NW where the covenant was originally signed by Corrigan and Buckley. Buckley was able to stop Helen Curtis from moving into No. 1727 on S Street. However, as the court case was being fought, Dr. Emmett J. Scott, a black man, moved into No. 1711 of S Street in April 1923.[4] This caused a very quick migration of the white community out of the neighborhood. By 1934, the neighborhood had an 86% non-white population.[4] This population shift showed the extreme effect that one African American could have on a neighborhood. Many neighborhoods shifted dramatically during this time, as many white people of D.C left the city for the suburbs. This "white flight", as it was coined, was often the result of an African American moving into a neighborhood that was almost completely inhabited by whites. The white people still living in these houses would fear that their property values would go down dramatically if they didn't sell right away and thus would move out to the suburbs as quickly as possible.[2]

The ramifications of the Corrigan v. Buckley case were felt throughout the D.C. area. The use of covenants spread rapidly, until almost entire neighborhoods were promised to be racially homogenous.[2] Blacks now faced the possibility of lawsuits if they used loopholes to work around the housing restrictions.[2] If some blacks did manage to sneak past the covenants and the occasionally racist sellers, and move into a home, it would often lead to a mass exodus of whites to other areas. The precedent that racial exclusion in terms of housing was acceptable lasted for a few decades before the issue was reconsidered by the judicial system. It wasn't until Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) that the Supreme Court determined that it was unconstitutional for the legal system to enforce covenants.[6] Corrigan v. Buckley set the precedent that racially restrictive covenants were just, and it lasted for years.[6]


  1. ^ Corrigan v. Buckley, 271 U.S. 323 (1926).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Asch, Chris Myers; Musgrove, George Derek (2017). Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9781469635866.
  3. ^ a b c "Constitutional Law. Covenant Prohibiting Sale of Property to Negro Is Constitutional." Virginia Law Review 11, no. 1 (November 1924): 68-69. Accessed January 2016. JSTOR.
  4. ^ a b c "Mapping Segregation." PROLOGUE DC LLC. Accessed January 24, 2016.
  5. ^ "1920s–1948: Racially Restrictive Covenants." 1920s–1948: Racially Restrictive Covenants. Accessed January 24, 2016.
  6. ^ a b c Shay, Allison. "On This Day: Corrigan v. Buckley and Housing Discrimination." Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement RSS. May 24, 2012. Accessed January 24, 2016.

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