On Thursday, February 12, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, a historical marker will be unveiled at the site where, in 1892, New Orleanian Homer Plessy attempted to board the "Whites Only" section of a passenger train and was arrested. This bold action resulted in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1896 that ruled "Separate but equal" facilities for Blacks and whites were legal and constitutional.
Homer Plessy was born Homère Patrice Plessy in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1863, a little less than three months after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Plessy's middle name later appears as Adolphe after his father, a carpenter, on his birth certificate. His parents were classified as free people of color or gens de couleur (Creoles of color), with African and French forebears.
Adolphe Plessy died when Homer was seven years old, but in 1871, his mother Rosa Debergue Plessy, a seamstress, married Victor M. Dupart, who was a clerk for the U.S. Post Office, but who supplemented his income as a shoemaker. Later, 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 listed his occupations as shoemaker, laborer, clerk, and insurance agent.
In 1888, 25-year-old Homer Plessy, married 19-year-old Louise Bordenave, with Plessy's employer Brito serving as a witness. The following year the Plessys moved to Faubourg Tremé at 1108 North Claiborne Avenue. He registered to vote in the Sixth Ward's Third Precinct.
By most accounts, Plessy seems to have led a rather ordinary life. However, by 1887, he became vice-president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans.
In many ways, that effort reverberates in current efforts to improve public education and increase educational opportunities for all of the city's children but particularly those who live in impoverished communities.
On June 7, 1892, Homer A. Plessy boarded a car of the East Louisiana Railroad that was designated by whites for use by white patrons only. Although Plessy was one-eighth Black and seven-eighths white, under Louisiana state law he was classified as an African American, and thus required to sit in the "colored" car. When Plessy refused to leave the white car and move to the colored car, he was arrested and jailed. In his case, Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, Plessy argued that the East Louisiana Railroad had denied him his constitutional rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States. However, the judge presiding over his case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies as long as they operated within state boundaries. Plessy sought a writ of prohibition.
Plessy took his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Louisiana where he again found an unreceptive ear, as the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Ferguson's ruling. Undaunted, Plessy appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Two legal briefs were submitted on Plessy's behalf. One was signed by Albion W. Tourgée and James C. Walker and the other by Samuel F. Phillips and his legal partner, F.D. McKenney. Oral arguments were held before the United States Supreme Court on April 13, 1896. Only Tourgée and Phillips appeared in the courtroom to speak for the plaintiff (Plessy himself was not present). It would become one of the most famous decisions in American history.
In a 7-to-1 decision in which Justice David Josiah Brewer did not participate, the Court rejected Plessy's arguments based on the Fourteenth Amendment, dismissing the New Orleanian's argument that the Louisiana statute violated it. The majority of the Court also rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of Blacks, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, it concluded that the law separated the two races as a matter of public policy.
When summarizing, Justice Brown declared, "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 colored 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 colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."
While the Supreme Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and Blacks-only railway cars, this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities, such as public toilets and cafés, where the facilities designated for Blacks were poorer than those designated for whites.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner who experienced a conversion as a result of Ku Klux Klan excesses, and would later become an outspoken proponent of Black civil rights, wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court's decision would become as infamous as that in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Harlan went on to say:
"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 color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."
Plessy v. Ferguson helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of separate but equal, the idea that segregation based on classifications was legal as long as facilities were of equal quality. However, Southern state governments refused to provide Blacks with genuinely equal facilities and resources in the years after the Plessy decision. The states not only separated races but, in actuality, ensured differences in quality. In January 1896, Homer Plessy pled guilty to the violation and paid the fine.
This decision was one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement, which spent the next 60 years trying to overturn that ruling; a struggle that goes on today.
The unveiling ceremony will be at 2:00p.m. on the corner of Royal and Press
streets adjacent to the railroad tracks between the Faubourg Marigny and
Bywater. Speakers will include Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette
Johnson, Tulane University professor and race relations authority Lawrence N. Powell, University of New Orleans professor and longtime NAACP officer Raphael Cassimere and historian/author Keith Weldon Medley. There will be musical performances by students from nearby New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), Frederick Douglass High School and McDonogh #35 High School.
Also on hand will be Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the principals in the 1896 Supreme Court decision, who will announce the creation of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation for Education, Preservation and Outreach. The foundation will work to "create new ways to teach the history of civil rights through film, art and public programs designed to create understanding of this historic case and its effects on the American conscience."
A brief reception will follow the ceremony, which is free and open to the public.
This article was originally published in the February 09, 2009 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper