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News & Ideas

Mary Gibson Hundley Talks about Housing Discrimination in 1947 Radio Program

Portrait of Mary Gibson Hundley
Portrait of Mary Gibson Hundley

Imagine being evicted from the home you bought and paid for, owing to the color of your skin.

This happened to Mary Gibson Hundley in the 1940s, and she and her husband fought back. Hundley (1897–1986) was an educator and civil rights activist who graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1918. Radcliffe College honored her in 1978 with the Alumnae Recognition Award for her service as an educator and "courageous citizen." One aspect of that service, her life-long involvement with Dunbar High School—founded in 1870 as the first college preparatory school for Blacks in the nation—is detailed in her book, The Dunbar Story, 1870–1955 (1965). As a result of this work, Hundley was credited with inspiring generations of Black students to pursue higher education and enroll in Ivy League colleges.

In January 1941 Hundley and her husband Frederick purchased and moved into a house in a neighborhood with a restrictive covenant. A restrictive covenant is an agreement limiting the free use or occupancy of property, usually based on race or religion. By the end of 1941, their white neighbors brought and won a lawsuit against the Hundleys, resulting in their eviction from their home in July 1942. That judgment was successfully reversed on appeal in December 1942 (Hundley et ux. v. Gorewitz et al. No. 8154 US Court of Appeals for DC, 1942). The case was later cited in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 US1-23 (1947), which established that covenants restricting use and ownership of property to whites violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Hundley related the experience in this 1947 radio broadcast of the program "Americans All."

Listen to “Americans All,” a 1947 Washington, DC, radio program with Mary Gibson Hundley, Leon A. Ransom

For research tips and additional resources, view the Hear Black Women's Voices research guide.

[Start of track]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

Eastern standard time, 11:15. We present “Americans All.”

[Music]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

This is "Americans All," a program presented in the public interest by station WWDC and designed to aid in the promotion of harmony and understanding among all races, colors and creeds in America. Tonight marks the final program in this current series of presentations. We call your attention to the fact that beginning next Sunday night October 5th at the same time, we will bring you the first in a new series of outstanding programs entitled “Within Our Gates.” These during dramatizations are devoted to encouraging and fostering better racial and religious understanding. The first program will tell the story and dramatize incidents in the life of Booker T. Washington. We also call attention to a new time for the “Americans All” program, which will be heard each Sunday afternoon at 2:30 over another Washington station. Consult your newspaper radio listings for further details on our “Americans All” program for tonight, we will hear a discussion on restrictive covenants by Mary Gibson Hundley, Leon A. Ransom and Kate album. Six years ago, a man and his wife bought a home in Washington, DC. Two months later, they were plunged into a series of legal and financial battles that lasted more than two years, cost them more than $2,000 and subjected them to a mental strain and a persistent and deliberate persecution, which to them was unthinkable in our American democracy. Tonight, “Americans All” presents that woman and her story.

[Speaking: Mary Gibson Hundley]

My name is Mary Gibson Hundley. My husband and I are high school teachers in the nation's capitol. On January 17 1941, we bought our home on 13th Street. We moved in the following day, and proceeded to remodel the property, installing more than $2,000 worth of improvements. Some weeks later we were sued by two of our neighbors. Why? Because they objected to our presence in the neighborhood. They had watched us coming and going. They had seen us improving the property. They had even grown fond of our dog. But they did not like us. We had not disturbed them in any way. We were not objectionable neighbors. We minded our own business, yet they met frequently in the house next door to decide how to get rid of us. One of them had run out to the moving van on the day we arrived and had asked the driver a most important question. “Are these people colored?” And he had answered “Yes.” But there was one other colored family nearby. They had lived in the block six months before we came, we thought surely there would be no troubles since they had survived that long. The presence of two colored families, however, provoked the suit against each one. The other family was annoyed only a short time and they won in the district court. We however, had to wait and worry until December 1st, 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor, when the court decreed that we must move in 120 days and our purchase payment would be refunded. Meanwhile, press notices and legal delays made it impossible for us to rent a portion of the home according to our original plan. Because of hostility in the neighborhood, we dared not leave the home for a vacation trip.

[Pause]

[Speaking: Mary Gibson Hundley]

Our attorney filed an appeal to the higher court and requested an extension of time pending the hearing of our case. But the big powers and neighbors insisted that we must go. On July 1st, 1942 we were evicted. We had to stay with friends two weeks until my former home was vacated and renovated. The tenant had to be evicted. The Marshal had taken the keys and we had left our home on 13th street with no more than suitcases. From day to day we had expected to find our furniture out on the sidewalk. But we finally learned that the furniture could stay in the house since it was not colored, but that we could not enter it again until we returned to remove our household goods. When we left, our neighbor was enjoying the eviction without unconcealed laughter. In December 1942, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court, ruling that we could return to live in our home. We had rented it to whitewall workers whom we soon asked to move. At once the same neighbors who had sued us proceeded to conspire to keep the tenants in our house. Various subterfuges delayed our return. Finally, after more than a year, the tenants moved out and we planned to move in the next day.

That evening when we went to inspect the property, we were surprised to find lights burning in every room, the shades pull down, and the door locked against us. With the aid of the police, we entered the basement door and found that the most amazing trick had been played. To prevent us from regaining possession of the house. Someone had bought two beds from the tenants before they left and had failed to remove the beds in order to pretend the house was still occupied. The man arrived soon after we had entered and claimed that he lived there. Although we've refused to be intimidated, we were falsely arrested a week later, and charged with housebreaking. We paid nearly $100 more for a bondsman and legal fees to have the case dismissed. Have you ever been arrested for moving into your own house? My husband and I are law abiding citizens. Our people have lived in this country for several generations. Our legal battle was fought at the same time as the Second World War. When the newspapers were full of the Four Freedoms for which we were all supposed to be giving our best effort, so that the whole civilized world might understand the American way of life and respect American ideals.

[Pause]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

Thank you Mrs. Hundley for telling us about this personal experience, which gives us a better understanding of the problems we are discussing today.

[Pause]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

We have Miss Kate Alperin[?], Executive Secretary of the Washington chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. Miss Alperin[?] is going to interview Dr. Leon Ransom, Washington attorney, on the legal aspects of the problem Mrs. Hundley faced and which others have faced. Dr. Ransom is well qualified to speak on the subject. He is chairman of the Legal Committee of the DC branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and chairman of the Committee for Racial Democracy in the nation's capital. Miss Alperin[?]...

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

First, I want to say to Mrs. Hundley that I couldn't help being shocked to hear of her experience. It's disgraceful that experiences such as hers should occur here in the capital of our democracy. And I'd like to ask Dr. Ransom a question about the legal aspects of this case. Dr. Ransom, what right did Mrs. Henry's neighbors have to oust her from her home in the first place? Don't our laws give protection against such undemocratic acts as those of Mrs. Hundley's neighbors?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Mrs. Hundley’s neighbors were about to force her out of her own home by means of what is known as restrictive covenants. That is a device by means of which people living in a particular neighborhood joined together in agreement in writing that they will not rent or sell their property to certain groups of people, such as Jews, Catholics, Negros or any other minority whom they considered to be undesirable persons for that particular neighborhood. Such covenants are usually phrased to the effect that no party may own or occupy the premises if they belong to the proscribed group. This being a contract between individuals, it has been unfortunately held in a large number of cases, that it is enforceable at law, with the result that any property owner in the neighborhood who does violate the terms of the agreement and sells his property to a member of the class named in the agreement may himself be sued for violation of it, and the purchaser will be compelled to give up the use or ownership of property for which he has paid his money. Fortunately, in Mrs. Hundley’s case, the courts in the district held that the covenant could not be enforced because the neighborhood in which the property was located had changed in character from an all-white residential area to one that was substantially for Negros and therefore the covenant had lost its effectiveness. The courts often hold that, where the neighborhood has changed in character residency. Because it's felt that such covenants are basically bad and should be enforced only when there is no other alternative. I am sorry to say that there are not many people in the District of Columbia who have been as fortunate as Mrs. Hundley in the outcome of such litigation. An example with which I am personally familiar, because I was counsel in the case, is that of a Mrs. Mays, who purchased a home in the northwest section of the city for herself, her sister and their children. And she was forced by the residents of the neighborhood to give up her home by means of these same covenants and go back to the rented rooms from which she had attempted to escape. The case was carried through the courts and finally to the Court of Appeals, and by a majority decision, the validity of the covenant was upheld. I am happy to say that one of the justices, however, wrote a very vigorous dissent, in which he pointed out that these agreements were undemocratic and constitute the serious threat to our social moral and economic welfare.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

But do our laws allow such an obviously discriminatory practice as the restrictive covenant?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

It is a fundamental right under both the English and American law that every person has the power of determining to whom he will sell his property. That of course, is as it should be. The viciousness of the covenant lies in the fact that a group of people bind themselves together for the purpose of determining that no one shall sell the property in that neighborhood to another certain class of people, or to allow it to be used for certain purposes. Originally, these agreements were based upon what we all must admit is a sound purpose. That is, of preventing the use of property for businesses that might be considered detrimental to the health and safety of the neighborhood, such as establishing slaughterhouses therein, factories, particularly those that might be manufacturing dangerous substances such as explosives. Or to prevent the establishment of saloons or other undesirable businesses in what should be a purely residential section. When this type of covenant was found to be upheld by law for such salutary purposes, it was seized upon by narrow minded individuals who wanted to force their own ideas of superiority upon their communities. And they began write the type of agreement which we are now discussing. The distortion of this original purpose of the covenant amounts really to conspiracy to deny the people who are the objects of personal prejudices the right to buy and live where they may choose. The wrong consists in the fact that such agreements are made to apply to classes or races and not merely to individuals who might be objectionable. These mutual agreements not to sell or rent property to persons of particular races or nationalities make it impossible for anyone who falls within the description to live in any particular neighborhood. In a case some years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that no state or any agency of a state could make a law which restricted persons from living in any particular place where such law was based on the race or color of the individual. Unfortunately, our courts have not yet in the main seen fit to deny the individuals the use of the courts to enforce these restrictive covenants, which do by private agreement, but the state is forbidden to do by law.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

Are any steps being taken to make the restrictive covenants unlawful?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Yes. For years, whenever an effort has been made to enforce one of these agreements in court, we have sought to have the courts declare that they are unenforceable by reason of the fact that they interfere with the individual owners right to sell his land to whomsoever he chooses, and denies the right to the individual purchaser to acquire and use property wherever he desires. Some states have held that these agreements are illegal for that reason, and a few have held that they're unconstitutional because they differentiate between people on account of their race, religion or nationality. However, other states have held that these covenants being private agreements may be enforced by the courts. Some of these limit the enforcement merely to the user occupancy of property, saying that the prohibition against ownership cannot stand. This, of course, is ridiculous, because it says effect that a man may own the property, but he cannot live in. Still others say that the prohibition against both ownership and occupancy can be enforced. The base of the enforcement of these by the courts lies in the fact that the state through its judicial branch is doing what as I said before, it cannot do through its legislative branch. Unfortunately, we have not been able to get any definitive decision on the matter by the Supreme Court of the United States, only once was a matter of before it in a case arising right here in the District of Columbia. And in that case, in our opinion, the real question in the issue, that is whether such agreements are constitutional or not, was bypassed and the case was decided on a legal technicality involving the procedure by which the matter had come before the court. However, because of the language used in the case, it has been assumed that the Supreme Court has given its blessing to such agreements. I am happy to say that this year we will have a chance to have the Supreme Court review this problem. And we are hopeful that they will declare in unmistakable language that such agreements are unconstitutional. And when they are made, the signers cannot appeal to our courts to carry out their undemocratic ideas. The Supreme Court has already agreed to review two cases at the coming terminal Court, which opens next Wednesday. One of these cases are rules Missouri and another in Michigan. In addition, the court has been asked to consider the review of three similar cases, one arising in Ohio, one from the District of Columbia and one from California. The very fact that so many cases are pending before the court indicates the widespread interest in the problem throughout the nation and leads us to believe that the court will uphold true American ideals and invalidate these practices.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

Mrs. Hundley’s case, Dr. Ransom, has pointed out the undemocratic nature of the restrictive covenant. But it occurs to me there are other aspects of the case of equal importance Has the policy of preventing various groups from living in certain areas had any effect on the housing picture or on crime or on delinquency?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

It very certainly does affect all of the problems you mentioned and affects them adversely. Because of these restriction agreements, minority groups are denied the opportunity to acquire homes or to live in the more desirable portions of community, with the result that such groups are forced into ghettos and slum areas in our cities. This necessarily results in overcrowding with all of its consequent evils. Health conditions become bad because both the overcrowding and the lack of sanitary facilities. Crime and juvenile delinquency rates rise in such areas because the unhealthful and squalid conditions under which people must live. And finally, such covenants lead to increase racial tension, which often results in riots and disorders. It must be clear to everyone that if you try to compress any racial or religious minority into a given area by virtue of prohibitions against their living elsewhere, natural increase in population itself will tend to cause this group to constantly expand and attempt to overflow the area where artificial hatreds and prejudices have been given the semblance of authority, by virtue of enforcement of the type of agreements that we are discussing. This attempt at expansion into the prohibited areas must resolve as it did in Detroit and as it has elsewhere, in actual physical friction between those who seek relief and those who attempt to deny it.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

Dr. Ransom. You mentioned specific cases in which the restrictive covenant was used against Negros and Jews, are they the only two groups against which the restrictive covenant has been used?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Every race, nationality or creed is potentially subject to being made object of such covenants. They depend only upon the particular prejudices of the majority group in any given neighborhood. They have been used against, in addition to the Negros and Jews, whom you have mentioned, Chinese, Japanese and other oriental peoples, against Italians, Pols, and even against our own American Indians. In fact, one of the outstanding cases which is now pending before the California courts, involves a situation in which the defendant, an American Indian who is married to a Caucasian woman, is being attempted to be forced out of his property and to leave his wife because of the covenants. That case is just as ridiculous as the one filed here in the district recently, in which certain signers of the covenant sought to separate a Jewish husband from his Gentile wife because the covenant was aimed at Negros, Jews and Persians. Fortunately, this case was withdrawn because of the widespread publicity it received and the indignation it evoked. It is a sad commentary, however, that similar indignation does not follow when such covenants are daily used because of the race or color of the purchaser. You asked about the limitations. There is no limit as to how these may be used. As long as the minds of groups of people can be poisoned by any form of prejudice against other peoples, they can write that poison into such agreements. They can be used against Catholics, against Protestants or any other religious denomination as well as against races or color.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

When we stopped to think of it, it just doesn't make sense that we require a person to whom we sell or rent a house to be of a certain color or religion or nationality. My organization, Americans for Democratic Action, and many other organizations and individuals strongly condemn the un-American practice of restrictive covenants. I'd like to hear from you Dr. Ransom, what we can do in this community to abolish the restrictive covenant.

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Although the final blow to restrictive covenants will come when the United States Court Supreme Court declares that they are unconstitutional, there are many things that individuals and organizations can do now. There is a big job of education to be done to show every citizen how the restrictive covenant against one group strikes a blow at the freedom of all groups. And then you should persuade everyone you can that they should not sign a restrictive covenant, denying access to his property or neighborhood to anyone merely because of his color or religion or nationality. As for those already in existence, you should get those persons who signed these agreements to join with their neighbors and withdraw from the covenant. The same people who signed the covenant and brought it into existence can by a similar agreement, withdraw their consent and thus destroy the effectiveness. Also, you can persuade the people who are in neighborhoods where these covenants have been put on by former owners not to make any attempt to enforce them by legal action when Negros or Jews or other persons prescribed move into their neighborhood. The covenants have no effect of themselves and become problems only when someone attempts to enforce them. Left alone they are mere words on a sheet of paper. Finally, you can urge all of your friends and acquaintances who belong to any citizens association, or civic group to work within that group and attempt to persuade their members not to enforce restrictive covenants in any portion of the neighborhood.

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

Now, here is Tomlinson D. Todd, president of the Institute on Race Relations.

[Speaking: Tomlinson D. Todd]

Ladies and gentlemen, our program tonight is the last “Americans All” broadcast on this station. This presentation marks the completion of one and a half years of continuous broadcasting. I think it fitting at this time to express on behalf of the Institute on Race Relations, deep appreciation to station WWDC, the various participants and others for their assistance. Such support has enabled me, as president of the Institute, to keep these programs on the air without interruption for the past 18 months. In doing this, it has meant a lot of hard work and many sacrifices, but the job has been and is still an important one. And now I wish to repeat the following announcement. “Americans All” will not go off the air but will be carried by another radio station, and at a much earlier hour on Sundays. Beginning next Sunday “Americans All” will be broadcast from 2:30pm to 3pm. You may secure the name of this radio station from the newspapers. Tonight you heard Mary Gibson Hundley tell the story of how the vicious practice of restrictive covenants for more than two years made life miserable for her and her husband. What she failed to tell you, what she was too modest to mention is this. Mrs Hundley is a teacher French at Dunbar High School. She is a graduate of Radcliffe College. She has a master's degree from Middlebury College. She has traveled and studied abroad. Her husband, Frederick F. Hundley is a teacher of art in the Brown Junior High School, and a graduate of the College of Fine Arts at Syracuse University. We all know that Mrs. Hundley’s experience is not unique. All over the country, there are American citizens who are deprived of certain rights and privileges guaranteed to them as citizens simply because someone doesn't like the color of their skin, the shape of their nose, or the sound of their speech. If there is one thing about racial and religious prejudice, which ought to be hammered into the consciousness of every American today, it is this. Never before in the history of mankind, as the world looks so much to America for leadership. Daily, we see evidence of this fact. Yes, the world looks to us for leadership. To the suffering millions of Europe and Asia, we have sent and are planning to send great quantities of food and money. Along with these physical necessities of life, we also send ideas. To some of these countries we have already said, “Be more democratic, clean up your elections, stop mistreating your minorities, set your political opponents free. Give the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Give these rights to all of your people. And not just to those who happen to agree with you.” We say these things to our neighbors and somehow like little children, we expect these neighbors to take us seriously simply because we say them. We seem not to worry about the fact that we don't always practice what we preach. We seem to think that our food, our dollars and our high sounding words are enough to hold the friendship of friendly nations and that our guns, our ships, atomic bombs are enough to hold off the unfriendly nations. As one man put it, we knock ourselves out doing it the hard way. Yes we can buy the peace of the world, but not with money, not with food, not with words. We can buy it only with deeds. If we can put our own house in order. If we can simply be the kind of nation we want our neighbors to be, the world will not only look to America for leadership, the world will follow her.

[Music]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

You have been listening to “Americans All.” Taking part in tonight's program were Mary Gibson Hundley, Leon A. Ransom and Kate Alperin[?]. Tonight marks the final program in this series and beginning next Sunday night, at the same time, we will inaugurate a new series of presentations, which are likewise designed to promote better racial and religious understanding among all peoples. This program will be known as “Within Our Gates,” a dramatic show that has already won national honors for what it has done to promote harmony and better understanding. The initial program over this station next Sunday night will highlight the life of Booker T. Washington. At this time station WWDC would like to express its thanks and appreciation to Mr. Tomlinson D. Todd, the president of the Institute on Race Relations, for his splendid assistance and cooperation in planning for these broadcasts of “Americans All” and to call your attention to the fact that the “Americans All” program will be heard hereafter on Sunday afternoons at 2:30 over another Washington station. Consult the radio listings in your newspaper for full details.

[Music]

[End of Track]


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