J.D. and Ethel Lee Shelley: Putting A Face on the Struggle for Fair Housing

0 Posted by - December 3, 2016 - BLACK MEN, BLACK WOMEN, CIVIL RIGHTS, JIM CROW, LATEST POSTS

In his own words, J. D Shelley, the man who  gives us insight into the struggle for fair housing in the civil rights era:
I was born in Starkville, Mississippi, on Christmas Day in 1907. Me and my wife, Ethel, got married on December 14, 1923… I wasn’t quite sixteen and she was younger than me.

I been working all my life. When I was down South, I did sawmill work, railroad, construction, all like that…

When I first come to St. Louis, my wife and my kids they stayed in Mississippi and I stayed here for a year I was only making $17 a week… When I came to St. Louis, they had places like the Fox Theater, no colored could go there; and the baseball diamond up on Sportsman’s Park, they didn’t allow no colored in there at one time. When they did open up Sportsman’s Park for colored, onliest place they could sit was in the bleachers. That changed after the war…

When I was here for a year, I went back down to Mississippi and came back with my wife and kids. The first place I rented was on Francis Avenue and I moved from there to North 9th St. My wife was working at a baby-care company and during the [Second World] war I was working out at the small-arms bullet plant, out on Goodfellow…

At the time it was hard for you to find a place when you had children, so every place we’d go they didn’t want us.We had been wanting to buy us a house, but we thought we’d better save up some money while we was both working. I told my wife, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. My check is more than yours, and we’ll just save my check and we’ll use your check to take care of the family and the household.

So we had some money saved up, and I wanted to buy a new car. My wife says, J.D., no! … What we’ll do, we’ll take what money we got and buy us a home…

I talked to my supervisor the next day when I got to work and he say, Shelley, you know what? Your wife is right. . . . Ethel went to the Church of God in Christ and her pastor, Elder Robert Bishop, he was also in real estate. So we went and talked to him and he said, Yeah, I know a place on Labadie that’s for sale. It’s got two apartments, so you can rent one out. So we went and looked at it and decided we would buy it. The price of the house was five thousand, seven hundred…

What they say in court was that this was supposed to be a restricted area, no colored live on this side of Taylor Avenue. That’s one or two blocks from where my house was on Labadie. This Jack Kraemer that sued us, he didn’t even own no property on this block. I never even seen him around here. Nobody who lived on this block never say they want us to move. They say in court that they had restrictions on all the property on Labadie since 1911… It was hard for me to hear a lot of what the judge and the lawyers say in court. You know how they do, they talk but you couldn’t hear what they be saying…

When they took it to the Supreme Court they passed a decision, they say it don’t make no difference, white or colored, long as they was able to buy property, anywhere in the United States. When I got home that evening, my wife was siting on the front porch reading the paper that says we won the case. That night, the photographer come, and we was sitting on the couch, with the kids betwixt us, and some on the floor, and they had it in the newspaper…

We lived in that house on Labadie for maybe ten years… I kept on working in construction long as I could, and my kids and their kids were all working too. Right now, I got five great-great-grandchildren. Ethel passed on September 15, 1984. We was married sixty years, and when we had our anniversary they had a big ceremony over to the church…

The way I see it, it was a good thing that we done this case… We was the first ones to live where they said colored couldn’t live.
J.D. Shelley, in his own words. Excerpted from a lengthier memoir published in Peter Irons, The Courage of their Convictions (New York: Free Press 1088), pp. 73-9.

2 Comments

  • VFC September 5, 2016 - 7:21 am Reply

    The picture used with this article about the Shelleys is NOT a picture of the Shelleys and their children. I am a member of the family…

    • DJ October 21, 2016 - 1:39 pm Reply

      Could you share a picture of the family with me? I and doing a talk about their courage and would love to have a photograph.

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