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June 17, 1968: A St. Louis couple win a landmark housing-rights case, but they never get their dream house

June 17, 1968: A St. Louis couple win a landmark housing-rights case, but they never get their dream house

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NORTH COUNTY • Joseph Lee and Barbara Jo Jones wanted a four-bedroom home in the suburbs. They toured the new Paddock Woods subdivision near Parker Road, saw a model they liked and picked a lot on Hyde Park Drive.

They went to Alfred H. Mayer Co., the county's biggest homebuilder, and offered $28,195. No deal, said the sales agent, who was blunt about his reason — Joseph Jones was black.

The mixed-race couple had married in 1961 and were living at 4585 Carter Avenue in north St. Louis. He was 33 and from Mississippi, she 31 and from Kirkwood. They both worked for the Veterans Administration.

"We are just two nobodies who wanted a house," Barbara Jones said.

They went to the Greater St. Louis Committee for Freedom of Residence, a group that promoted integrated housing, and talked to its chairman, lawyer Samuel Liberman II. He filed a federal suit in September 1965.

On June 17, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark 7-2 ruling, declaring there was no right to refuse to sell a home because of a buyer's race. "The right thing was done," Joseph Jones said.

But they never got that dream home on Hyde Park. During their three-year wait, they lost in U.S. District Court and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said federal law didn't prohibit a private seller from discriminating according to race. Meanwhile, Mayer sold all the lots in Paddock Woods, a mile north of Interstate 270 and just west of Lewis and Clark Boulevard.

The couple bought a three-bedroom home at 2030 Valencia Drive in Florissant, three miles from Paddock Woods, and took their case to the Supreme Court.

Liberman's argument was that the Civil Rights Act of 1866, adopted to enforce the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, gave blacks equal rights to property ownership. The lower courts had said that law applied only to government action.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on April 2, 1968, two days before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis. The assassination jolted Congress into adopting the Fair Housing Act one month before the Supreme Court ruled in the Jones case.

That's one reason why the Jones decision, while nationally significant, gets less attention than other landmark civil rights cases. Another is the series of sad, then tragic, turns in the lives of Joseph and Barbara Jones.

They divorced in 1971. Barbara Jones took their daughter, who was born in November 1968, and moved to Las Vegas. On May 17, 1974, Joseph Jones was found stabbed to death in the home on Valencia. J.D. Jones, his younger brother, confessed and was committed to the Department of Mental Health.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series. 

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