The front of Plessy v. Ferguson marker in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Yesterday, May 17, was the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education
(1954). Today is the anniversary of Plessy v Ferguson
, "a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of 'separate but equal.'"
Though to some readers much of this may seem like ancient history, we need to remember the battle is not won—we still face defacto segregation in housing and in our schools, as well as in the workforce. Discrimination against our right to vote is constant. In some ways, the current Roberts Court, dominated by an arch-conservative majority, bears more of a relationship to the jurists who decided Plessy, than it does to the court that unanimously decided Brown.
I lived in the Jim Crow South in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a child, rode segregated rail cars and faced race riots in the north in New York City as blacks moved into what had been all-white neighborhoods and began attending previously all-white schools. I cannot forget the "whites only" signs, or those signs designating places for us "coloreds." The Plessy decision ushered in the period we know of today as Jim Crow, along with sweeping anti-black violence, repression and lynchings (which are depicted at the end of this video clip: trigger warning).
For some folks it may be history, but for me it is simply a part of my life, lived under systemic racism. I cannot and will not forget where we have been, and where we still need to go.
Though most of us learn about Brown in history classes, and perhaps about Plessy, I thought it would be fitting today to explore more of the history of the Plessy case and the man, Homer Adolph Plessy, and his fellow activists who initiated the case.
Follow me below the fold for more.
Back side of the New Orleans LA historical marker with a bio of Homer Plessy and the names of the members Comité des Citoyens/Committee of Citizens
There are no known pictures of Homer Plessy. A Google search will bring up photos that purport to be Plessy, but are actually pictures of P. B. S. Pinchback, the light-skinned, Reconstruction-era governor of Louisiana.
Homer Plessy was born Homère Patrice Plessy March 17, 1862, in New Orleans to Joseph Adolphe Plessy and Rosa Debergue, members of New Orleans' French-speaking Creole society...Homer Plessy's paternal grandfather was Germain Plessy, a white Frenchman born in Bordeaux c. 1777. Germain Plessy arrived in New Orleans with thousands of other Haitian expatriates who fled Haiti in the wake of the slave rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture that wrested Haiti from 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, a carpenter, on his birth certificate. Plessy belonged to Louisiana's French-speaking Creole class which the American society did not understand or accept. Plessy grew up speaking French. Adolphe Plessy 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.
Because Louisiana was colonized by the French, a "tripartite legal distinction emerged"— whites, African slaves and free people of color or gens de couleur libre
. These free coloreds were the products of sexual liaisons between white planters and slave women initially, but generations of crossing lines created not only mulattos
(half-white), but also quadroons
(one-fourth black), octoroons
(one-eighth black), and mustees
(one-sixteenth black). Called "colored creoles" to make a distinction between these mixed-race persons and those white Frenchmen and women born in the colonies, the free persons of color in Louisiana enjoyed an economic freedom and an opportunity for education denied to other mixed-race slaves or free Negroes in the rest of the South (Dominguez, 1986).
The system of racial hypodescent, better known as "the one drop-rule," meant that no matter if a person "looked white," they simply were not white if they had African ancestry. Homer Plessy "looked white" and was a perfect choice to become a test case.
We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson,
by Keith Weldon Medley
Thanks to the detailed research of Keith Weldon Medley, in We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson
, we know a lot more about both Plessy, and the men and women of color who took a stand to fight for their rights as citizens.
Medley described Plessy's selection:
"At age thirty, shoemaker Homer Plessy was younger than most members of the Comité des Citoyens. He did not have their stellar political histories, literary prowess, business acumen, or law degrees. Indeed, his one attribute was being white enough to gain access to the train and black enough to be arrested for doing so. This shoemaker sought to make an impact on society that was larger than simply making its shoes. When Plessy was a young boy, his stepfather was a signatory to the 1873 Unification Movement—an effort to establish principles of equality in Louisiana. As a young man, Plessy displayed a social awareness and served as vice president of an 1880s educational-reform group. And in 1892, he volunteered for a mission rife with unpredictable consequences and backlashes. Comité des Citoyens lawyers Albion Tourgee, James C. Walker and Louis Martinet vexed over legal strategy. Treasurer Paul Bonseigneur handled finances. As a contributor to The Crusader newspaper, Rodolphe Desdunes inspired with his writings. Plessy's role consisted of four tasks: get the ticket, get on the train, get arrested, and get booked"
In his review
of Medley's book, Michael A. Ross describes those citizens.
After Appomattox, these men and women seized the opportunity to claim full political, legal and social equality. They helped lead the Reconstruction-era sit-ins that integrated the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1868 that granted suffrage to black men and integrated public schools and juries. They also joined the Unification Movement of 1873 that brought together ex-Confederates such as Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and black leaders such as editor Louis Roundenez, in a brief but unsuccessful effort at racial cooperation. When the Comité des Citoyens formed in 1891 to protest the Separate Car Act, the sons of those Reconstruction-era leaders became the backbone of the organization.
As a result, Medley notes, the members of the Comité “hardly represented a random sample of the South’s black population. With many of mixed-race heritage, fluent in French and English, Roman Catholic, professional rather than laboring, they seemed more in tune with European pursuits than in rural black life.” They were sons of a privileged black class who had inherited their parents’ commitment to political activism. They rejected the accommodationist ideas of Booker T. Washington and instead launched “a last ditch, desperate effort” to retain the rights their forbears had fought so hard to gain.
Rather than stand by passively as Louisiana state senator (and later) governor) Murphy J. Foster restored white supremacy to the state, they went to work raising funds and orchestrating legal challenges they hoped would discredit the emerging Jim Crow order. Medley gives particular credit in this effort to Louis Martinet, publisher of the Crusader, a newspaper that became the voice of the Comité and was, for a time, the only African-American daily in the country. In an era when outspoken black leaders often feared for their lives, Martinet could be seen each day walking fearlessly to his French Quarter office from his home on Burgundy Street, wearing “a black suit, with a black bow string tie and a black felt wide brim hat.”
It is key to place "segregation" in its historical context. We tend to think of the word only in Southern terms. Historian C. Vann Woodward stated
It was a common occurrence in the 1880s for foreign travelers and Northern visitors to comment, sometimes with distaste and always with surprise, on the freedom of association between white and black people in the South. Yankees in particular were unprepared for what they found and sometimes estimated that conditions below the Potomac were better than those above. Segregation was, after all, a Yankee invention. It had been the rule in the North before the Civil War and integration the exception. In the South slavery and, afterward, its heritage of caste had so far served to define blacks' "place" in the eyes of the dominant whites. There was discrimination, to be sure, but that was done on the responsibility of private owners or managers and not by requirement of law...Where discrimination existed it was often erratic and inconsistent. On trains the usual practice was to exclude blacks from firstclass or "ladies" cars but to mix them with whites in second‑class or "smoking" cars. In the old seaboard states of the South, however, blacks were as free to ride first class as whites. In no state was segregation on trains complete, and in none was it enforced by law. The age of Jim Crow was still to come.
The first genuine Jim Crow law requiring railroads to carry blacks in separate cars or behind partitions was adopted by Florida in 1887. Mississippi followed this example in 1888, Texas in 1889, Louisiana in 1890, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee in 1891, and Kentucky in 1892. The Carolinas and Virginia did not fall into line until the last three years of the century.
In his article for Smithsonian
, The sad story of how 'separate but equal' was born
, Medley described the ruling made four years after Plessy's initial arrest:
On May 18 the Court issued a ruling. With only one dissent it granted states the right to forcibly segregate people of different races. Writing for the majority, justice Henry Billings Brown, appointed by Benjamin Harrison, dismissed Plessy's 14th Amendment claims and, as precedent, pointed to the existence of separate schools in the District of Columbia and the longstanding bans on interracial marriage. The only test of such segregation, he said, would be whether or not the regulations were reasonable. The Court also stated that "legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences." As for determining who was black or white, that was left to the discretion of each state.
Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan
The lone dissenter was Justice John Marshall Harlan. "The destinies of the two races in this country," Harlan wrote, "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.... The thin disguise of 'equal' accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done." The decision was remanded to the Supreme Court of Louisiana on September 28, 1896. The Comite issued a final statement: "In passing laws which discriminate between its citizens," it declared, "the State was wrong.... Notwithstanding this decision... we, as freemen, still believe that we were right, and our cause is sacred."
On January 11, 1897, Homer Plessy returned to court for sentencing. By then, times had changed dramatically. The Comite had disbanded; The Crusader had ceased publication. All over the South, white supremacists were firmly in control of the Legislatures. Judge Ferguson had stepped down in 1896, and Judge Joshua Baker was presiding. Plessy changed his plea to guilty paid a $25 fine and walked out into the brave new world of a segregated Louisiana.
Those in the black community who thought racial separation would bring peace were in for a rude awakening. Emboldened by the Supreme Court's Plessy decision, in February 1898 Louisiana called a constitutional convention in New Orleans to lay down a blueprint for white supremacy. Endorsed by Governor Foster, the delegates made it illegal to run an integrated school, allocated state money as a " pension fund" for the relatives of Confederate soldiers, declared the Louisiana Democratic Party a "whites only" organization and used various devices, such as the "grandfather clause," to keep blacks and immigrants from voting. "Our mission was to establish the supremacy of the white race," the chairman of the judiciary committee bluntly declared. In the four years from 1896 to 1900, more than 120,000 black voters were removed from the rolls, their numbers dropping from 45 percent to 4 percent of eligible voters. By 1900 Louisiana did not have a single black representative in its Legislature. There would be none until 1967.
Benjamin W. Arnett
In response to the U. S. Supreme Court ruling, there was an outcry from the black community and its allies, both in the North and South. In Ohio, Benjamin W. Arnett
, gave this speech in the House of Representatives on The Black Laws
The denial of our civil rights in this and other States is a subject of public notoriety, denied by none but acknowledged by all to be wrong and unjust; yet, in traveling in the South we are compelled to feel its humiliating effects. It is written over the door of the waiting room, "For Colored Persons;" and in that small, and frequently dirty and dingy room, you have to go or stand on the platform and wait for the train. In Georgia they have cars marked "For Colored Passengers." There is one railroad in Alabama that has a special car for colored persons. They will not allow a white man to ride in that car; and many other roads allow the lower classes to ride in the car set apart for "Colored Persons."
One would think that at this time of our civilization, that character, and not color, would form the line of distinction in society, but such is not the case. It matters not what may be the standing or intelligence of a colored man or woman, they have to submit to the wicked laws and the more wicked prejudice of the people. It is not confined to either North or South. It is felt in this State to some extent; we feel it in the hotels, we feel it in the opera house. There are towns in this State where respectable ladies and gentlemen have been denied hotel accommodations, but such places are diminishing daily, under the growing influences of equal laws...
Members will be astonished when I tell them that I have traveled in this free country for twenty hours without anything to eat; not because I had no money to pay for it, but because I was colored. Other passengers of a lighter hue had breakfast, dinner and supper. In traveling we are thrown in "jim crow" cars, denied the privilege of buying a berth in the sleeping coach. This monster caste stands at the doors of the theatres and skating rinks, locks the doors of the pews in our fashionable churches closes the mouths of some of the ministers in their pulpits which prevents the man of color from breaking the bread of life to his fellowmen.
This foe of my race stands at the school house door and separates the children, by reason of color, and denies to those who have a visible admixture of African blood in them the blessings of a graded school and equal privileges. We propose by this bill to knock this monster in the head and deprive him of his occupation, for he follows us all through life; and even some of our graveyards are under his control. The colored dead are denied burial. We call upon all friends of Equal Rights to to assist in this struggle to secure the blessings of untrammeled liberty for ourselves and prosperity.
Black people did not passively accept this growing legal repression—there was organized resistance. Civil rights struggles did not start in the 1950s with the Montgomery bus boycotts, or Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King Jr. However, much of this early history goes untaught.
A good starting point for study is Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson
Through a reexamination of the earliest struggles against Jim Crow, Blair Kelley exposes the fullness of African American efforts to resist the passage of segregation laws dividing trains and streetcars by race in the early Jim Crow era. Right to Ride chronicles the litigation and local organizing against segregated rails that led to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the streetcar boycott movement waged in twenty-five southern cities from 1900 to 1907. Kelley tells the stories of the brave but little-known men and women who faced down the violence of lynching and urban race riots to contest segregation. Focusing on three key cities-New Orleans, Richmond, and Savannah-Kelley explores the community organizations that bound protestors together and the divisions of class, gender, and ambition that sometimes drove them apart. The book forces a reassessment of the timelines of the black freedom struggle, revealing that a period once dismissed as the age of accommodation should in fact be characterized as part of a history of protest and resistance.
In 1996, citizens of New Orleans came together for a reconsecration of Homer Plessy's tomb in Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1. Plessy Day
is celebrated in New Orleans on June 7.
Homer A. Plessy Day was established June 7, 2005 by the Crescent City Peace Alliance, former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the Louisiana House of Representatives, and the New Orleans City Council.
The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation has brought together the descendants
of Homer Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, "to create new and innovative ways to teach the history of Civil Rights through understanding this historic case and its effect on the American conscience."
Hat-tip to Kossak Skywriter for the historical marker photos and to Crashing Vor for documenting the 2009 installation ceremony for the markers.