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How the Defeat of a Zoning Law Reshaped Racial Segregation

In 1917 the Supreme Court knocked down a discriminatory land use practice in Louisville, Ky. While the case made overt zoning segregation illegal, state and local government continued to find alternative ways to divide communities along racial lines.

ResidentialSecuritesMap2.jfif
Race of household, Louisville, 1938-1939. This map, developed by the Work Progress Administration of Louisville in 1938-39, shows the persistence of segregated living in the city well beyond the 1917 Buchanan v. Warley decision. While zoning laws after the decision may have ostensibly focused on economic factors, the result was a clear exclusion of African American residents from white neighborhoods.
Editor’s note: To celebrate Black History Month, we are presenting a look back at a little known but landmark Supreme Court case where housing discrimination, civil rights activism and state and local government intersected.

Racial segregation within American cities has often been told as a story of individual, nefarious players: racist lenders denying loans to people of color and landlords discriminating against applicants. But in the early 20th century, state and local government passed overtly racist legislation that divided land into distinctly segregated zones. These legal decisions continue to impact neighborhoods across the country today.

In 1914, the city of Louisville, Ky., passed a zoning ordinance that made it illegal to sell homes to Black people in a majority-white neighborhood, and vice versa. The ordinance proclaimed its purpose in its lengthy title: “An ordinance to prevent conflict and ill-feeling between the white and colored races in the City of Louisville and to preserve the public peace and promote the general welfare by making reasonable provisions requiring, as far as practicable, the use of separate blocks for residences, places of abode and places of assembly by white and colored people respectively.”

Despite the claim to maintain social harmony, the law in fact served to address white citizens’ fears about potential loss of property values. They expressed this concern to local council representatives to address an increase in Black residents moving into white-majority neighborhoods in Louisville’s West End. Rather than creating harmony among citizens, the law sought to reassure the white population.

This kind of racial legislation was not unique in the early 20th century. Other cities, including Baltimore, Richmond and St. Louis, had similar zoning ordinances (Baltimore’s 1910 zoning ordinance was, in fact, the first of its kind). What made Louisville’s law unique was that a team of political and civil rights activists were prepared to tear it down.

Louisville’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter quickly decided to challenge the law in courts. They created a test case: Charles Buchanan (a white real estate agent who also wanted the law overturned) sold his home in a white-majority neighborhood to William Warley, an African American and active member of the Louisville NAACP chapter. When the zoning ordinance prevented the legality of the sale, Buchanan sued Warley for failure to pay. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where the ordinance was eventually struck down in a unanimous decision.
The front page of the Louisville Leader on Nov. 10, 1917.
On Nov. 10, 1917, the Louisville Leader, an African American community newspaper, celebrated the Buchanan v. Warley decision as a “great victory for civic rights.” The article states that “some were optimistic enough to rank the decision with the Emancipation Proclamation in importance.”

While the Supreme Court’s decision was a success for the NAACP, it came about under less-than-ideal circumstances for Black activists. The Supreme Court overturned the law not because the zoning ordinance violated Black people’s civil rights (which was one argument made by NAACP lawyers Clayton B. Blakey and Moorfield Storey), but because it interfered with the rights of property owners. The Court stated that a person had the right to sell his property to anyone, and that government involvement would deprive a person of property without due process of law, according to the 14th amendment. To overturn the zoning ordinance, the NAACP had to collaborate with a white man (Buchanan) to successfully sue a Black man (Warley) on the premise that the law was unfair to the white homeowner. The racial injustice of the law was essentially ignored by the Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, the decision was deemed by many at the time to be the most significant Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case. Historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois later even argued the decision helped begin to break the “backbone of segregation.” As a result, cities including New Orleans, Atlanta, and Baltimore abolished similar racialized zoning laws.

But Buchanan v. Warley did not eradicate racist land use practices. Instead, it led state and local government to find alternative ways to maintain segregation. Many cities created zoning ordinances structured around economic and social class divisions. For example, cities created laws that allowed only wealthier people to purchase homes: one neighborhood might only allow single-family homes, and another might require a certain amount of acreage per home. Black-majority spaces, on the other hand, were often zoned for more affordable, multi-family dwellings. Areas with a significant Black population were changed to industrial or mixed-use zones, allowing bars, liquor stores, and nightclubs to open in these neighborhoods (whereas they were illegal in wealthier residential districts).

Buchanan v. Warley managed to eliminate one form of racist zoning legislation across the country while simultaneously sparking a new form of segregation: one coded in language related to class and social status. Over time, these kind of zoning laws, coupled with the government subsidization of white migration to suburbs, helped to solidify the racially segregated zoning patterns that we see today.
A plaque at the site of the home Warley attempted to purchase from Buchanan.
In 2017, Louisville placed a plaque at the site of the home Warley attempted to purchase from Buchanan. The historical marker commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision.
(Courier Journal)
Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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