The Neglected Case of Buchanan v. Warley.
The Land Ordinance of Louisville
In 1916 there was a Land Ordinance in Louisville, KY, which stated that African Americans where prohibited from living on a block where the majority of residents were white. It also prohibited whites from living on a block where the majority of residents were black. In order to challenge this law, Warley, a black man, agreed to purchase Buchanan's house. Buchanan was white. Just by this simple action, Warley and Buchanan's lives would change, and would indeed challenge not only the law, but the court as well. Pre-case
When it came time to purchase the house, Buchanan had Warley sign a contract which stated: ‘‘It is understood that I am purchasing the above property for the purpose of having erected thereon a house which I propose to make my residence, and it is a distinct part of this agreement that I shall not be required to accept a deed to the above property or to pay for said property unless I have the right under the laws of the State of Kentucky and the City of Louisville to occupy said property as a residence.’’ After signing the contract, Warley refused to pay for the residence, stating that the law prohibited him from residing there, since the block was filled with white residents. This allowed Buchanan to sue Warley for breach of contract. The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the ordinance and declared that Warley did not have to pay for the house. This allowed the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Case Goes to Court
This case was the first to be brought to Supreme Court by the newly organized civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Moorfield Storey argued the case for Buchanan. This case was of course odd. Buchanan, a white man, was suing Warley, a black, to force him to buy a house in a mainly white neighborhood. If Buchanan won, then all blacks would win. The Supreme Court asked one simple question:
‘‘May the occupancy, and, necessarily, the purchase and sale of property of which occupancy is an incident, be inhibited by the States, or by one of its municipalities, solely because of the color of the proposed occupant of the premises?’’ The Court refused to limit the rights of the Fourteenth Amendment to just that of African Americans and other minorities. They argued that while a principal purpose of the said Amendment was to protect the rights of blacks, the broad language used seemed sufficient enough apply to all persons, white or black, against discrimination. Thus, under the Fourteenth Amendment, Buchanan had just as much of a right to sell his house as Warley did to buy it. In upholding Buchanan’s right to sell his house, and Warley’s right to buy it, the Court quoted from Strauder v. West Virginia (1880), which had struck down a West Virginia law that prohibited blacks from serving on juries. In Strauder, the Court had said that the Fourteenth Amendment was: ‘‘Designed to assure to the colored race the enjoyment of all the civil rights that under the law are enjoyed by white persons, and to give to that race the protection of the general government, in that enjoyment, whenever it should be denied by the States. It not only gave citizenship and the privileges of citizenship to persons of color, but it denied to any State the power to withhold from them the equal protection of the laws, and authorized Congress to enforce its provisions by appropriate legislation.’’ If this was so, then surely blacks could buy houses wherever they wanted. The Court also quoted the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866, which had specifically guaranteed that blacks would have the same right as whites to ‘‘Inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.’ ' Justice William Day then asked: ‘‘In...
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