Homer Plessey Case

Homer Plessey Case

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By the end of the 19th century all railway cars in the Southern states were segregated. In 1896 Homer Plessey decided to test the constitutionality of what became known as Jim Crow laws. Plessey, who was seventh-eighths white, sat in white only railroad car in Louisiana. When he told the conductor he was an African American, he was asked to move to a black only railroad car. When he refused he was arrested and was later found guilty of breaking Louisiana's segregation laws.

Plessey appealed to the the Supreme Court but William Billings Brown was rightly convicted in Louisiana for riding in a white only railway car. In doing so he established the legality of segregation as long as facilities were kept "separate but equal" and helped to sustain Jim Crow laws. Only one of the justices, John Harlan, disagreed with this decision.

Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and coloured children, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of states where the political rights of the coloured race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.

The case reduces itself to the question whether the statute of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation, and with respect to this there must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature. In determining the question of reasonableness, it is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order. Gauged by this standard, we cannot say that the law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable or more obnoxious to the Fourteenth Amendment than the acts of Congress requiring separate schools for coloured children in the District of Columbia.

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the coloured race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the coloured race chooses to put that construction upon it.

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is colour-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his colour when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.

Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of 8 million blacks. The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what will more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races than state enactments, which, in fact, proceed on the ground that coloured citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens?

Today in History: Homer Plessy Violates Louisiana’s Separate Car Act (1892)

The fight for equal rights wasn&rsquot limited to the 1950s and 1960s, but was instead a prolonged fight that began immediately after the Civil War, especially in the South. After the fall of the Confederacy, the people who supported slavery had to move away from the institution, but that didn&rsquot mean that they all of a sudden saw African-Americans as equal to white folk.

Instead, a new institution was born. The South (a many areas of the North as well for a time) began a system of separating African-Americans in public. This was later termed Segregation, something that was legal until 1954, when the Supreme Court overturned it with the ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.

The first landmark legal case that determined the legality of Segregation occurred in 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled over the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. This was the end result of four years of legal fighting over the conviction of Homer Plessy in July of 1892.

Read the Plaque

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy agreed to violate Louisiana&rsquos Separate Car law, which was passed to segregate train cars. Homer Plessy was not a former slave or anything of the sort. In fact, he resembled a white man, but was actually 1/8th Black. On June 7, he sat in the White&rsquos only car, on the East Louisiana Railroad that ran between New Orleans and Covington, and then told the conductor that he was 1/8 Black, expecting to get kicked off the train and/or jailed. He was arrested and jailed, but was released the next day on a $500 bond.

He did this at the request of the Citizen&rsquos Committee, which was a group of minorities who fought for equal rights. Plessy had established himself as a Civil Rights advocate in the 1880s when he joined a group that strove to improve the public education system.

Plessy&rsquos case was heard by John Howard Ferguson a month after his arrest. Plessy&rsquos lawyer argued that Plessy&rsquos 13th and 14th Amendment Rights had been violated. Ferguson upheld Louisiana&rsquos right to regulate railroads within its own borders. The case then worked its way through the court system until it was argued before the United States Supreme Court in April 1896, in what would become one of the most famous rulings ever to be given: Plessy vs. Ferguson.

The Supreme Court bench that presided over Plessy v. Ferguson. vassar.edu

The court ruled against Plessy, and in doing so, legalized the use of &ldquoseparate but equal&rdquo, which would be used for the next sixty years. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion: &ldquoThe object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to the either&hellip&rdquo

For the next 58 years, &ldquoSeparate but Equal&rdquo would be the law of the land. It would be used in almost every public and commercial institution, especially in the South. Schools, transportation, bathrooms, and neighborhoods were all segregated based on color. This doctrine would be one the biggest things that the Civil Rights movement would fight against during that time period.

Homer Plessey Case - History

Can you believe that someone would get himself arrested on purpose? That is exactly what Homer Plessy did. He agreed with a group of citizens who wanted to challenge unjust laws. As a test, Plessy violated the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car law. That means he agreed to break the law on purpose.

The Separate Car law said that white citizens and black citizens had to ride in separate railroad cars. Plessy had one African great grandmother. All the rest of his family was white. He looked white. When he boarded the "whites only" railroad car and handed his ticket to the conductor, Plessy had to tell the conductor that he was one eighth black. When he refused to move to the "blacks only" car, the conductor had him arrested. Plessy had to pay a $500 bond to get out of jail.

The citizen's group hired Albion Winegar Tourgee, a white lawyer from New York who fought for the rights of African-Americans. Tourgee took the case through the Louisiana courts, which found Plessy guilty, and to the United States Supreme Court, which unfortunately, reached the same decision.

What special things in Homer Plessy's background gave him the courage to defy the law? He was born free in New Orleans in 1862. When he was five, his father died. Like his stepfather, he became a shoemaker. He married and lived a peaceful life until he was thirty years old and boarded that railroad car.

After the court case that wrote his name into American history, Plessy returned to an uneventful life as an insurance collector. He died in 1925. Like many American heroes, Plessy was an ordinary person with extraordinary courage to stand up for what he believed was right.

Our Namesake

On June 7, 1892, Homer Adolf Plessy Purchased A First Class Railroad Ticket, Boarded The Train, And Was Arrested Two Blocks Later At The Corner Of Press And Royal Streets. He Was Charged With Violating The Separate Car Act, Which Mandated Separate Accommodations For Black And White Railroad Passengers.

The result was the landmark Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court case, which made “Separate but Equal” the law of the land until the ruling was overturned with Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

We draw inspiration every day from Homer Plessy and the Citizens’ Committee — for their bravery, their ingenuity, their sense of community, and their commitment to justice

This seemingly simple act was in fact the result of meticulous planning by a group called the Citizens’ Committee. Their creative and highly sophisticated work was designed with a Supreme Court challenge in mind, intending to stem the tide of segregation that was taking over post-Reconstruction America.

Plessy v. Ferguson

The Comité des Citoyens lawyers wanted Plessy to test the law next, and they made sure to have him travel on an intrastate train. On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad and boarded a White passenger car after the conductor was told Plessy was partly African American. Plessy was arrested after just 20 minutes, and his attorneys argued that his civil rights had been violated, citing both the the 13th and 14th amendments. The 13th Amendment ended enslavement and the 14th includes the Equal Protection Clause, which prevents the State from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Despite this argument, both the Louisiana Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court, in the landmark 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that Plessy’s rights had not been violated and that Louisiana was within its rights to uphold a “separate but equal” way of life for Black and White people. To avoid jail time, Plessy paid a $25 fine, and the Comité des Citoyens disbanded.

Homer Plessy: Train Incident and Supreme Court Case

Before introducing the actual court case, it is important to acknowledge the American Citizens Equal Rights Association and their dedication to protesting the Separate Car Act. In response to Louisiana’s adoption of the law in 1890, the American Citizens Equal Rights Association was interested in testing the constitutionality of the new state legislation.

The first attempt to challenge the law was with 21-year-old Daniel Desdunes. The plan was simple, have an African American passenger buy a first-class ticket to sit in the designated white railway car, and then arguing that the arrest of the black passenger was a violation of the 14 th Amendment (1).

Because in the trial Desdunes was traveling between state lines, purchasing a ticket from New Orleans to Mobile, Louisiana state legislature could not be enforced within another state. Therefore, the case was dismissed.

Interesting enough, the ruling for Desdunes case was based on a precedent of a recent Louisiana Supreme Court Case, Abbott v. Hicks, in which a train conductor was arrested and tried for seating an African American in the designated white passenger car, traveling from Texas to Louisiana. The Abbott v. Hicks ruling decided that the Separate Car Act could be enforced beyond state lines.

The dismissal of the case led the American Citizens Equal Rights Association to do another test, this time using the white-passing Homer Plessy. Homer Plessy was one-eighth black, classified as an octoroon during that time period. With light enough skin complexion to pass as a white man, Plessy was the perfect subject for the American Citizens Equal Rights Association’s next passenger trial.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy sat in the designated white passenger railroad car, that he earlier purchased a ticket for, and awaited his departure, this time traveling within the state of Louisiana. Intentionally as a part of the trial to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, the train conductor was alerted that a light, white-passing, black passenger seated in the white car. The conductor approached Plessy before departure, asking if Plessy was in fact black. Plessy responded, admitting he was in fact black. The conductor instructed Plessy to move to the colored section railroad car, but Plessy refused arguing he purchased a first-class ticket and making that him move was a violation of his rights as an American citizen. As a result of his refusal, Plessy was arrested, jailed, and charged with violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act. (1)

Plessy’s legal team, provided by the American Citizens Equal Rights Association, argued before the district court that the Separate Car Act that Plessy was charged with being in violation of was unconstitutional, and filed for a plea that the court did not have the jurisdiction to decide this case. Although Plessy lost his case, he filed for an appeal in the Louisiana State Supreme Court losing again. Another appeal was filed, and the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“That it does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, is too clear for argument.”

– Justice Brown on why it is not in violation of the 13 th Amendment (2)

The Supreme Court references the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 as a precedent, that ruled that state rights are different than federal rights, and the Constitution can only legally uphold federal civil rights. Interesting enough Louisiana was the subject of this case as well.

“' Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”

– Justice Brown on why it is not in violation of the 14 th Amendment (2)

Despite a solid defense that the Separate Car Act was a violation of the 13th or 14th Amendment, all but one supreme court justices ruled against Plessy, reasoning that the fourteenth amendment does not restrict “distinctions based on color" (2).

Urofsky, Melvin I. “Homer Plessy and Jim Crow.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Aug. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law/Homer-Plessy-and-Jim-Crow.

“Negro Expulsion from Railway Car, Philadelphia.” Negro Expulsion from Railway Car, Philadelphia, The Illustrated London News, 1856.

Thomas, Brook. Plessy V. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. Print.

Plessy, Homer A.

Introduction: Homer A. Plessy was the plaintiff in the middle of the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that confirmed the concept of “separate but equal” in U.S. law which then opened the door even wider for legal segregation, commonly known as “Jim Crow” laws. On June 7, 1892, the mixed-race Plessy deliberately sat in a whites-only rail car to test a new Louisiana state law requiring separate cars on trains for whites and blacks. He was forced to leave the train, arrested and fined however, Homer Plessy’s interrupted train ride became the basis of , the Supreme Court case that gave legal cover to seventy more years of Jim Crow laws. Plessy, a shoemaker, was recruited by the Comité des Citoyens, an association of prominent mixed-race men who were considered free people of color before the Civil War. They wanted to challenge the 1890 state Separate Car Law in order to halt the growth of Jim Crow, which was undoing the gains blacks made during Reconstruction.

Plessy was an “octoroon,” or one-eighth black. The Comité des Citoyens thought his light complexion would show the arbitrariness of the law, and that Plessy would make a more sympathetic figure to white people. He boarded the East Louisiana Railroad Co. train at Press and Royal streets in New Orleans. To ensure the test case would work, the committee hired a private detective to detain Plessy for the police and had the cooperation of the conductor for the East Louisiana Railroad to ensure that Plessy was challenged. The railroad opposed the whites-only state law because of the cost of maintaining separate cars.

Biography: Homer Plessy was born Homère Patrice Plessy March 17, 1862 in New Orleans to Joseph Adolphe Plessy and Rosa Debergue, members of New Orleans’ free people-of-color caste. Homer Plessy’s paternal grandfather was Germain Plessy, a white Frenchman born c. 1777. Germain Plessy arrived in New Orleans with thousands of other Haitian expatriates who fled Haiti in the wake of the slave rebellion that wrested Haiti from Emperor Napoleon in the 1790s. Germain Plessy married Catherine Mathieu, a free woman of color, and they had eight children, including Homer Plessy’s father, Joseph Adolphe Plessy.

Homer Plessy’s middle name would later appear as Adolphe, after his father, on his birth certificate. His parents were classified as Creoles, or free people of color, with African and French forebears. Plessy grew up speaking French. His father, Adolphe Plessy, a carpenter, died when Homer was seven years old. In 1871, his mother Rosa Debergue Plessy, a seamstress, married Victor M. Dupart, a clerk for the U.S. Post Office who supplemented his income by working as a shoemaker. Plessy too became a shoemaker. During the 1880s, he worked at Patricio Brito’s shoe-making business on Dumaine Street near North Rampart. New Orleans city directories from 1886-1924 list his occupations as shoemaker, laborer, clerk, and insurance agent.

By 1887, Plessy became vice-president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans.

In 1888, Plessy, then twenty-five years old, married nineteen-year old Louise Bordenave at a ceremony led by Father Joseph Subileau at St. Augustine Church which is located at 1210 Gov. Nicholls Street in New Orleans. Plessy’s employer Brito served as the witness. In 1889, the Plessys moved to Fauberg Treme at 1108 North Claiborne Avenue. He registered to vote in the Sixth Ward’s Third Precinct.

Plessy returned to anonymity after the decision of the Plessy v. Ferguson case. He died in 1925 and is buried in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery. A plaque commemorating his role in history is on his tombstone.

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Anna T. Micklin, Evergreen State College and posted on BlackPast.org

Civil Rights Advocate

Plaintiff for a landmark Supreme Court case, Homer A. Plessy was born on March 17, 1863 in New Orleans. He was a light-skinned Creole of Color during the post-reconstruction years.

With the aid of the Comité des Citoyens, a black organization in New Orleans, Homer Plessy became the plaintiff in the famous Plessy v. Ferguson case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1896. The decision established the “separate but equal” policy that made racial segregation constitutional for the next six decades.

In order to challenge the 1890 Louisiana statute requiring separate accommodations for whites and blacks, Homer Plessy and the Comité des Citoyens used Plessy’s light skin to their advantage. On June 7, 1892 Plessy bought a first class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway. He took a vacant seat in a coach reserved for white passengers. When Plessy was ordered to leave, he disobeyed. Policemen arrived and threw Plessy off the train and arrested him and threw him into jail. He was charged with violating the Louisiana segregation statute of 1890.

Contending that the law violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, Plessy petitioned a writ of prohibition to the Louisiana state Supreme Court against Judge John H. Ferguson. The state Supreme Court denied Plessy, holding that the law was constitutional, but allowed his writ of error to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawyers A.W. Tourgée and S.F. Phillips represented Plessy. His argument to the Supreme Court was that as a citizen of the United States, a resident of Louisiana and of mixed descent, with unrecognizable “colored blood,” he deserved the rights and privileges secured to white people by the Constitution.

Justice Henry Brown delivered the majority decision of the court, holding that the Louisiana law did not violate the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments because it did not deprive liberties or properties without due process of the laws. Justice John Marshall Harlan issued the lone dissent, stating that the separation of citizens on the basis of race went against the civil freedoms granted in the Constitution and the Civil Rights amendments. Ultimately, the Plessy decision only opened the door for more segregation laws, which were also called the Jim Crow Laws. In 1954, 58 years later, the Brown v. Board of Education decision overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Homer A. Plessy, an insurance agent into his early sixties, died on March 1, 1925 in New Orleans.

Editor’s Note: The text from the Bronze Plaque.


Otto H. Olsen, ed., The Thin Disguise: Turning Point in Negro History, Plessy v. Ferguson (New York: Humanities Press Inc., 1967)

Editor’s note: This story is released in conjunction with The Historic New Orleans Collection’s 2021 Symposium, “Recovered Voices: Black Activism in New Orleans from Reconstruction to the Present Day.” The interactive website includes books, stories, videos, and a March 5–7 program. Learn more here.

“Liberty has always had a hard road to travel, whenever prejudice was the consulted oracle. The United States will not be an exception to the rule, as long as race antipathy will be allowed to overshadow every other within our territory. But the obligation of the people is resistance to oppression.”The Crusader, August 1891

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, the US Supreme Court delivered a 7-1 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding a state’s right to segregate the races in “separate but equal” facilities.

The case originated in New Orleans as one of two test cases set up by a group of Creole of color activists. By appealing to the highest court in the land, the men behind Plessy v. Ferguson sought to halt the rolling back of major civil rights gains Black people achieved during Reconstruction. Their defeat in 1896 marked the end of an era of radical Black activism in New Orleans that began with the Civil War. The plaintiff in the case, Homer Plessy, was born in New Orleans to French-speaking free people of color on March 17, 1863. Plessy came of age during a time that was in many ways significantly different from that of his parents, Adolphe and Rosa Debergue Plessy. Slavery no longer existed, which meant neither did the category, “free person of color.”

Plessy could ride integrated streetcars and attend integrated schools. He could look forward to voting and perhaps imagined running for elected office one day. These rights had been hard won by French-speaking Creole and English-speaking Black activists and their white Radical Republican allies. The 1868 Louisiana constitution, which enshrined these “civil, political, and public rights” for all citizens, marked the culmination of their efforts.

Louisiana's reconstructed constitution was one of the most progressive of its kind, providing for Black male suffrage and equal rights for all Louisianians in public education and accommodations. This commemorative lithograph depicts the African American men elected to public office in 1868. (THNOC, 1979.183)

Yet, as Homer Plessy entered his teen years, a compromise resolving the contested 1876 presidential election ended Reconstruction, and conservative white Democrats quickly gained power in Louisiana. The new government began to dismantle advances in racial equality, beginning with integrated public schools.

Activists in New Orleans fought the resegregation of schools through mass protests and lawsuits but to no avail. A new state constitution approved in 1879 eliminated language guaranteeing equal rights to public places and ended public school integration.

In the face of these setbacks, a multigenerational group of Creole activists continued to organize during the 1880s. Stalwarts of the Reconstruction era, including newspaper editor Paul Trevigne, joined forces with emerging leaders like Rodolphe L. Desdunes and Louis A. Martinet. Now a young man in his 20s, Homer Plessy was part of this next generation of activists.

These men revitalized pre–Civil War institutions and created new ones. In 1886, for example, a group established the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club to make sure “our rights as citizens of this State and of the United States [are] protected and respected.” The following year, Plessy, who was working as a shoemaker at the time, became vice president of the club.

Afro-Creoles like Rodolphe Desdunes emerged in a new generation of activists during the 1880s. (THNOC, 59-110-L)

Martinet, a notary with degrees in law and medicine from Straight University—a historically Black school that merged with New Orleans University in 1935 to form Dillard University—launched a newspaper in 1889, aided by several members of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club. Printed in French and English, the Crusader followed in the footsteps of two earlier Black-owned activist papers, L’Union and the Tribune.

Desdunes, who also graduated from Straight’s law program, wrote for the Crusader and eventually served as editor-in-chief. Veteran writer and activist Trevigne frequently contributed as well.

The Crusader spoke out against violence and discriminatory treatment toward Black people. It denounced efforts to make distinctions between the races, arguing that Louisiana’s mixed population made this unfeasible. The paper also closely monitored the legislature for new laws that chipped away at Black civil rights. During the legislative session of 1890, the Crusader focused its attention on a bill known as the Separate Car Act.

First introduced in May, the Separate Car Act mandated that railroad companies enforce segregated seating in their trains with designated “white” and “colored” cars. The Crusader’s contributors recognized the injustice of this act as well as the arbitrary enforcement of a law based on visible cues of race.

After the Separate Car Act was passed, the first challenge to the law took place on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, whose depot is depicted here. (Courtesy of the Vieux Carré Survey).

“Every honorable person knows,” wrote Desdunes, “that the law was passed to discriminate against the colored people so as to degrade them.” The paper also warned that allowing the Separate Car Act to go unchallenged would embolden white legislators to further erode the rights of African Americans. The Crusader protested the act, calling for boycotts of the railroad companies and the formulation of a test case to challenge the law in court.

The Louisiana branch of the American Citizens’ Equal Rights Association (ACERA) immediately opposed the bill. ACERA members, including Crusader staff, traveled to Baton Rouge to protest the law’s passage. Despite their efforts, the act passed on July 10. ACERA considered additional ways to counter the Separate Car Act, but Creole leaders deemed the organization’s tactics ineffectual and embarked on their own orchestrated fight against the law.

In September 1891, a group of eighteen men formed the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens’ Committee) for the Annulment of Act No. 111, Commonly Known as the Separate Car Law. Representing several generations of activists, the members included business owners, teachers, writers, and lawyers. The committee’s membership overlapped with Crusader staff and the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club. While Creoles predominated, a few members were English-speaking Black men.

A pamphlet titled The Violation of a Constitutional Right was published by the Citizens’ Committee in 1893. (THNOC, 58-70-L)

The committee sought to overturn the Separate Car Act through the legal system. Similar to arguments made in the Crusader, the committee claimed that “unless promptly checked by the strong power of the courts, the effects of that unconstitutional and malicious measure will be to encourage open persecution, and increase, to a frightful degree, opportunities for crimes and other hardships.”

Using its connections to Black benevolent associations, labor unions, religious groups, and other organizations, both local and national, the Citizens’ Committee raised $3,000 to fund their fight.

Martinet and Desdunes devised the committee’s strategy to challenge the constitutionality of the law through test cases. To assist in their plan, Martinet recruited Albion W. Tourgée, a white lawyer in New York. The Union veteran and former Republican judge in North Carolina remained an outspoken proponent of equal rights as a writer and organizer in the years following Reconstruction’s end.

As Tourgée worked on the legal strategy from New York, the Citizens’ Committee enlisted a local white attorney, James C. Walker, to assist in New Orleans. With their counsel and plan in place, the Citizens’ Committee set up two cases to contest the Separate Car Act.

The first case involved the planned arrest of Desdunes’s son, Daniel (inset), on an interstate train trip. The Citizens’ Committee made arrangements with the Louisiana and Nashville Railroad in advance. Unhappy with the financial burden of running separate cars, the company agreed to cooperate. The Committee then hired private detectives to make the arrest.

On February 24, 1892, Daniel Desdunes bought a ticket to Mobile, Alabama, and boarded the first-class “whites-only” car. As planned, Desdunes refused to move to the “colored car” when confronted by a railroad employee. The train stopped to allow the detectives to board and arrest Desdunes for violating the Separate Car Act. The Citizens’ Committee paid Desdunes’s bond.

Daniel Desdunes’s case came before Judge John Ferguson, who dismissed the charges in July. Citing a recent decision in a Louisiana Supreme Court case, Judge Ferguson ruled that regulation of interstate travel fell under the federal government’s domain, and, therefore, the Separate Car Act could not be applied to interstate trips.

The Crusader cheered, “Jim Crow is Dead as a door nail.”

The Committee’s second case required Homer Plessy to get arrested in the “white” car on an intrastate trip. On June 7, 1892, Plessy booked a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad to travel across Lake Pontchartrain. His planned arrest occurred not long after the train left the Press Street station.

Photograph of an advertisement for the East Louisiana Railroad Company. In June 1892, Homer Plessy of New Orleans purchased a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad and took a seat in a whites-only car. (THNOC, 1974.25.37.57)

Plessy’s case also landed on Judge Ferguson’s docket. Walker, the Citizens’ Committee attorney, asked that the charges against his client be dismissed, arguing that the Separate Car Act violated the 14th Amendment by making “invidious distinction and discrimination based on race.”

Judge Ferguson disagreed. In November, he ruled that for travel within Louisiana, the Separate Car Act remained constitutional because equal accommodations were provided to white and Black passengers.

Walker immediately appealed, sending the case before the Louisiana Supreme Court. As the Citizens’ Committee expected, the justices handed down a decision in favor of the state.

Defeat at the state level prompted the Citizens’ Committee to turn to the federal judiciary. Committee members understood the severe consequences that a ruling against Plessy could have for people of African descent but felt this was a risk they must take. Rodolphe Desdunes explained: “We believe that it is more noble and worthy to fight nonetheless, rather than to show oneself passive and resigned. Absolute submission augments the oppressor’s power and creates doubts about the sentiment of the oppressed.”

A mural by Ian Wilkinson stands on Royal Street, near the modern-day site of Plessy's arrest. It depicts Louisiana's one-time acting governor, PBS Pinchback, whose portrait is often misidentified as Plessy, and the artist's interpretation of what Plessy may have looked like. (Photograph by Eli A. Haddow)

Tourgée filed the case with the United States Supreme Court in October 1895. Eight justices heard the arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson the following spring. Tourgée sought to demonstrate that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. By creating racial distinctions among citizens, he argued, segregated seating “perpetuat[ed] the stigma of color” and denied Black people equal protection under the law.

Tourgée also pointed out the absurdity of enforcing strict racial categories given the undeniable existence of widespread racial mixture, an argument long espoused by Creole activists. Indeed, the Citizens’ Committee purposefully chose Plessy and Daniel Desdunes for the test cases because of their “white” physical appearance. Tourgée argued that Plessy’s racial ambiguity proved that a law with the premise of separating two distinct groups—“whites” and “coloreds”—was untenable.

This image of the US Capitol was taken between 1885 and 1920. The Supreme Court heard arguments at the US Capitol, in a room that formerly housed the US Senate. (THNOC, gift of Joy Segura, 2004.0096.96)

On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court delivered its decision, upholding Judge Ferguson’s initial ruling that “separate but equal” was indeed constitutional. In the majority opinion, Justice Henry Billings Brown claimed that nothing about “enforced separation . . . stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.” If Black people felt that way, it was because they “[choose] to put that construction on it.”

Regarding the 14th Amendment, Brown wrote that the law protected only “political equality” not “social equality.” Thus, “if one race be inferior to the other socially,” which Brown believed to be true, “the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” As to how an individual’s race was categorized, Brown declared that states had the right to their own legal definitions.

Justice John Marshall Harlan delivered the sole vote in favor of Plessy. In his dissent, Harlan disagreed with the majority’s narrow interpretation of the 13th and 14th Amendments, believing that “if enforced according to their true intent and meaning” the amendments “will protect all the civil rights that pertain to freedom and citizenship.” He echoed Tourgée’s argument that the Separate Car Act “puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow citizens, our equals before the law.”

Warning that legalized segregation would cause “race hatred,” Harlan forcefully ended his opinion by putting the lie to the “separate but equal” doctrine: “The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

A plaque at the modern-day site of Plessy's arrest commemorates the role of the Citizens' Committee in the struggle for civil rights. (Photograph by Eli A. Haddow)

The Citizens’ Committee’s fear that the Separate Car Act would lead to increased forms of segregation and discrimination came true after the Plessy ruling. The Supreme Court’s decision officially sanctioned segregation laws, which proliferated over the next decades throughout the South and beyond.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Louisiana legislature had passed laws that segregated most public accommodations. White Louisianians enforced the new restrictions through violence against Black Louisianians. The Supreme Court’s ruling would not be overturned until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case.

A 1970s cartoon by John Churchill Chase recalls Plessy v. Ferguson and the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, which reversed the Plessy ruling. (THNOC, Gift of John Churchill Chase and John W. Wilds, 1979.167.18 a)

The Citizens’ Committee disbanded not long after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of racial segregation. In a final statement, the Committee explained that “notwithstanding this decision, which was rendered contrary to our expectations, we, as freemen, still believe that we were right, and our cause was sacred. . . . In defending the cause of liberty, we met with defeat, but not with ignominy.”

Even in the face of bitter disappointment, Creole activists maintained their pride and determination to fight for their rights as humans and as citizens. Although the struggle to realize their vision of a society built on equality and free of racial prejudice fell short, it left a powerful legacy for future Black activists in Louisiana.

Overlooked No More: Homer Plessy, Who Sat on a Train and Stood Up for Civil Rights

He boarded a whites-only train car in New Orleans with the hope of getting the attention of the Supreme Court. But it would be a long time before he got justice.

Since 1851, many remarkable black men and women did not receive obituaries in The New York Times. This month, with Overlooked, we’re adding their stories to our archives.

When Homer Plessy boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans on June 7, 1892, he knew his journey to Covington, La., would be brief.

He also knew it could have historic implications.

Plessy was a racially mixed shoemaker who had agreed to take part in an act of civil disobedience orchestrated by a New Orleans civil rights organization.

On that hot, sticky afternoon he walked into the Press Street Depot, purchased a first-class ticket and took a seat in the whites-only car.

The civil rights group had chosen Plessy because he could pass for a white man. It was asserted later in a legal brief that he was seven-eighths white. But a conductor, who was also part of the scheme, stopped him and asked if he was “colored.” Plessy responded that he was.

“Then you will have to retire to the colored car,” the conductor ordered.

Before he knew it a private detective, with the help of several passengers, had dragged him off the train, put him in handcuffs and charged him with violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, one of many new segregationist laws that were cropping up throughout the post-Reconstruction South.

For much of Plessy’s young life, New Orleans, with its large population of former slaves and so-called “free people of color,” had enjoyed at least a semblance of societal integration and equality. Black residents could attend the same schools as whites, marry anybody they chose and sit in any streetcar.

French-speaking, mixed-race Creoles — a significant percentage of the city’s population — had acquired education, achieved wealth and found a sense of freedom since before the Civil War. But as the century drew to a close, white supremacy movements gained traction and pushed hard to quash any notion that people of color might ever attain equal status in white America.

The Separate Car Act spurred vigorous resistance in New Orleans. Plessy, himself an activist, volunteered to be a test case for the local civil rights group, Comite’ des Citoyens (Citizens Committee), which hoped eventually to put Plessy’s case before the United States Supreme Court. The group posted his bail after his arrest.

When his case was heard in criminal court four months later, Judge John Howard Ferguson chose not to hold a trial and instead, he upheld the constitutionality of the Louisiana Separate Car Act, which enabled Plessy’s legal team to appeal the decision and keep Plessy out of jail.

Plessy’s lawyer, Albion Tourgée, then appealed the ruling before the Louisiana Supreme Court, arguing that the Separate Car Act violated the 14th Amendment, which, ratified in 1868, guaranteed equal protection under the law. But the higher court upheld Judge Ferguson’s decision.

It would be four years until the Supreme Court heard Plessy v. Ferguson.

In his argument before the Court, Tourgée asserted that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was a sham. “Its only effect is to perpetuate the stigma of color — to make the curse immortal, incurable, inevitable,” he argued.

His words fell on mostly deaf ears. On May 18, 1896, the justices, eight white men of privilege, ruled against Plessy, 7-1.

The sole dissent was by Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Kentucky native and Civil War veteran, who famously declared, “Our Constitution is color blind.”

The ruling came to be regarded as one of the most ignominious in the Supreme Court’s history. It would define the Jim Crow era, in which people of color were summarily segregated from not only trains but also schools, theaters, public buildings, lodgings, lunch counters and much else over the next 58 years, until the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, unanimously dismissed the “separate but equal” doctrine in ruling in 1954 that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

By then Plessy had long been dead.

Plessy’s train-car protest presaged Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, but where she became revered in civil rights lore, he all but vanished into obscurity, his name synonymous with an odious Supreme Court ruling.

“This case is infamous for several reasons,” Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, said in a telephone interview. “First, separate is almost never really equal. Second, separate is symbolically and psychologically unequal when it is recognized to have the social meaning that whites are too good to mix with blacks, or that one race is essentially superior to the other.”

He added: “The ruling suggested that if people of color feel inferior as a result of these laws, it is their own fault. It is essentially part of blaming the victim and pretending that the feeling of subjugation and subordination is simply a problem in the mind of the person on the receiving end.”

Steve Luxenberg wrote in his 2019 book, “Separate,” that Plessy v. Ferguson’s “baneful effects lasted longer than any other civil rights decision in American history.”

“It gave legal cover to an increasingly pernicious series of discriminatory laws in the first half of the 20th century,” he wrote.

After the Supreme Court decision, the Citizens Committee in New Orleans issued a final statement on the case, saying, “In defending the cause of liberty, we met with defeat but not with ignominy.”

Homère Patris Plessy (later changed to Homer Adolph Plessy) was born in New Orleans on March 17, 1863, soon after Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. His parents, Joseph Adolphe Plessy, a carpenter, and Rose Debergue Plessy, were Creole.

Homer’s paternal grandfather, Germain Plessy, was a white Frenchman born in Bordeaux. He had emigrated to Haiti and then fled to New Orleans along with thousands of other expatriates during a slave rebellion in the 1790s. In New Orleans, he married Catherine Mathieu, a free woman of color, with whom he had eight children, including Homer’s father.

Homer’s father died when he was 6, and his mother married Victor M. Dupart, a shoemaker and political activist whose wife had died, leaving him with six children. Dupart was active in the social, political and masonic organizations that were part of the fabric of New Orleans society.

In the 2003 book “We as Freemen,” Keith Weldon Medley wrote that the extended Dupart family had influenced his joining such organizations as the Unification Movement, an early civil rights group.

Like his stepfather, Plessy became a shoemaker. In 1887 he became vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club, a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans. In 1888 he married Louise Bordenave, and the couple moved to the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood, just north of the French Quarter. The Tremé, which is known as the birthplace of New Orleans jazz, was a center of “diversity, culture, politics and music” filled with free people of color who had migrated from Haiti and Cuba, Medley wrote.

He added: “Homer Plessy spent the first half of his life exercising the newfound rights that were denied his parents. He would spend the 1890s trying to keep those rights.”

After the Supreme Court decision, Plessy returned to district criminal court, where he was found guilty, paid his $25 fine, and lived a quiet life. He and his wife had no children.

With the industrial age wiping out much of the handmade shoemaking industry, he abandoned the trade and worked as a laborer, warehouseman and clerk. He later worked for the black-owned People’s Life Insurance Company as a collector. Plessy died on March 1, 1925, and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans. He was 61.

At a book signing in 2004, Medley introduced Keith M. Plessy, a distant relative of Homer Plessy, to Phoebe Ferguson, a documentary filmmaker and the great-great granddaughter of Judge Ferguson.

Phoebe Ferguson began to apologize for her ancestor’s decision and for the segregation it triggered. “I stopped her,” Keith Plessy said in a phone interview. “I told her, ‘It’s no longer Plessy versus Ferguson it’s now Plessy and Ferguson. And we became great friends.”

In 2009, Plessy joined forces with Ferguson to found The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation to preserve Homer Plessy’s legacy and influence how it is taught. The organization petitioned New Orleans to hold an annual Homer Plessy Day on June 7 and to rename a stretch of Press Street as Homer Plessy Way. A plaque explaining his act of civil disobedience now stands on the spot where he was arrested.


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Watch the video: Plessy v. Ferguson: Decision, Background, Case Summary, Civil Rights 1996