Willis "Bill" Graves Jr. was born to formerly enslaved Willis and Eleanor Graves in the newly founded freedman's village of Oberlin community in Raleigh, NC. Bill attended the Historically Black Universities (HBCUs), Saint Augustine University and Shaw University in Raleigh, and went on to law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After receiving his law degree in 1919, Bill moved to Detroit, MI for the opportunities of a growing Black population, but he quickly discovered the city's racial inequalities in housing.
Graves and his law partner, Francis Dent, became the point men in the fight against racially restrictive covenants (prohibiting the sell of property to non-Caucasian people) in Detroit. As counsel for the Detroit National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Graves worked with some of the nation's most renowned civil rights attorneys and participated with a group of prominent attorneys at gatherings in New York and Washington, D.C. to develop a national strategy for civil rights litigation. In 1925, he worked with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, (best known today for his role in the Tennessee "Scopes Monkey Trial") in the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a young African American physician, who he and his family were charged with murder after a member of a mob was shit while surrounding Sweet's home in an all-white neighborhood. Sweet was later acquited by an all-white jury. The trial drew international attention and was critical to the expansion of the NAACP.
Perhaps the pinnacle cases in Graves' professional career were Sipes . McGhee (1947) and its appealer, Shelley vs. Kraemer (1948). From trial court to the Michigan Supreme Court, Graves and Dent defended an African American couple, Orsell and Minnie McGhee, who had been sued by a white neighbor for buying a home that was subject to racially restrictive covenants. Despite Graves and Dent's argument that the "self-proclaimed beacon of liberty" that America established after World War II went against the racially restrictive covenants, Michigan court upheld their precedents. On appeal with Shelley vs. Kraemer, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that racially restrictive covenants were unenforceable by the state. Private parties can abide or not as they saw fit, but could not enact state action on the matter as it would go against the 14th amendment. This ruling enabled people of color to be able to legally "live anywhere." Shelley vs. Kraemer has since been used as precedent in many landmark civil rights cases, including Brown v. Board of Education.
Graves continued to practice law in Detroit for 46 years, served as the legal redress chairman in the NAACP, and was general counsel for the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. He was the first Black man named to a committee of the State Bar in Michigan, serving on the grievance committee. He and Francis Dent were also among the founders of The Wolverine Bar Association, which was organized to support African Americans admitted to law practice throughout Michigan.
Adapted from an essay submitted with historical marker application by Mary F. Wilson
Image: Graves-Fields House, courtesy of Preservation North Carolina
Allen, Francis A. "Remembering Shelley v. Kraemer: Of Public and Private Worlds." Washington University Law Quarterly, Volume 67, Issue 3, 1989, p. 709-735.
Gonda, Jeffrey D. Unjust Deeds: The Restrictive Covenant Cases and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015, p.70-77, 87-88.
"Graves Dies; Darrow Aid in Race Case." Detroit Free Press, Dec, 18, 1966.
Kucheva, Yana and Richard Snader. "The misunderstood consequences of Shelley v Kraemer." Social Science Research, Volume 48, Nov. 2014, p.212-233.
Letter from WJBK-TV Detroit, Cover Letter for interview tapes for 1992 Distinguished Warriors-Graves and Dent.
"'Live Anywhere!' High Court Rules." The Pittsburgh Courier, May 8, 1948.
National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Graves, Willis M. House/Graves-Fields House; Oakcrest, Raleigh, NC 1990.
"On this day in 1948: The U.S. Supreme Court sides with Detroit Black homeowners." Ken Coleman, Michigan Advance, May 3, 2022. https://michiganadvance.com/blog/on-this-day-in-1948-the-u-s-supreme-court-sides-with-detroit-black-homeowners/
Shelley vs. Kraemer; No. 72 Supreme Court of the United States; 1948, p. 2.
Sipes v. McGhee, 316 Mich. 614, 25 N.W.2d 638, Supreme Court of Michigan; 1947, p. 618
Vose, Clement E. "NAACP Strategy in the Covenant Cases." Case Western Reserve Law Review, Volume 6, Issue 2, Article 4, 1955, p.101-145.
"Willis M. Graves St. Cyprian's Detroit." The Record, Feb 1952, p. 3.