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Plessy v. Ferguson

A US Supreme Court decision handed down in 1896 enacted “separate but equal” as the law of the land, a doctrine of racial segregation that lasted nearly six decades.

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Plessy v. Ferguson

The Historic New Orleans Collection

This political cartoon, "In 1892, we were here...," was published in a weekly series in the New Orleans States-Item newspaper, 1977.

Plessy v. Ferguson, a US Supreme Court decision handed down in 1896, enacted “separate but equal” as the law of the land, a doctrine of racial segregation that lasted nearly six decades. Along with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Plessy v. Ferguson stands as one of three watershed American civil rights cases. In Plessy the Supreme Court legitimized racial segregation on railroad trains and provided a legal foundation for all Jim Crow laws.

What was the context surrounding the case?

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision sought to restore the legal barriers between Black and white people that had fallen after the Civil War. The Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the US Constitution granted freedom to the enslaved, granted equal citizenship rights, and gave Black men the right to vote, respectively. Following the Compromise of 1877 and the end of Reconstruction, these gains came under attack.

In 1890 the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act, requiring Black and white passengers to ride in separate railroad cars. In 1891 eighteen New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens, or Citizens’ Committee, to challenge the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act. The committee raised funds, held rallies, and hired attorneys. Members included Republican activists, writers, lawyers, businesspersons, former Union soldiers, and educators from New Orleans’s Black Creole elite.

Under guidance from the committee, musician Daniel Desdunes of the Creole Onward Brass Band volunteered to defy the Separate Car Act on February 24, 1892, when he purchased a first-class ticket and boarded a designated whites-only car on the Louisiana and Nashville Railroad from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama. The committee chose to test the law on a route that went through more than one state because they believed that prohibiting Desdunes from taking the journey would violate the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. (The clause provides the federal government the power to regulate commerce between US states as well as with foreign countries and Native American tribes.) Desdunes was ordered off the train and arrested. Soon after Desdunes’s arrest the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in the separate Abbott v. Hicks case that the Separate Car Act didn’t apply to interstate passengers, thus rendering the test irrelevant.

Homer Plessy, a shoemaker who was born Homère Patris Plessy in 1863 to free people of color, volunteered to be the next activist. On June 7, 1892, Plessy arrived at the Press Street railroad yards in New Orleans near the Mississippi River. In a planned act of civil disobedience, he purchased a first-class ticket on an East Louisiana Railroad train bound for Covington and took his seat in a “whites only” car. When asked to leave, Plessy refused and was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act. Plessy’s action set the stage for the courts to determine if the Separate Car Act could be applied to travel solely within the state of Louisiana.

What arguments were made for and against Plessy’s case?

Plessy appeared before Judge John Howard Ferguson on October 13, 1892, in State of Louisiana v. Homer Adolph Plessy. He pleaded not guilty to the charges of violating the Separate Car Act. On October 28, Plessy’s lawyer, James C. Walker, argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, but Judge Ferguson ruled against him on November 18, 1892. “There is no pretense that he [Plessy] was not provided with equal accommodations with the white passengers,” the judge stated. “He was simply deprived of the liberty of doing as he pleased, and of violating a penal statute with impunity.” In December 1892 the Louisiana State Supreme Court, presided over by former Confederate officer Francis Nicholls, upheld Ferguson’s decision.

In April 1896 Plessy’s legal team was able to bring his case before the US Supreme Court. In Plessy v. Ferguson, lead attorney Albion Winegar Tourgée argued that segregation’s primary effect “is to perpetuate the stigma of color—to make the curse immortal, incurable, inevitable.” The court issued its ruling on May 18, 1896, voting seven to one to uphold the Louisiana court’s decision. “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,” Justice Henry B. Brown wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “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.” John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenting justice, replied, “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. … The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

What effect did the Supreme Court’s ruling have?

On January 11, 1897, Plessy returned to criminal court in New Orleans, entered a guilty plea, and paid a $25 fine. After the Supreme Court’s decision, the Comité des Citoyens continued to maintain that segregation was unfair and unconstitutional. However, the case set a legal precedent. Louisiana and other southern states passed additional segregation laws, confident that the federal government would defer to them on issues of race. “Separate but equal” remained accepted doctrine until its overturning in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.

More than one hundred years after the Plessy decision, the Crescent City Peace Alliance installed a historical marker at the site of Plessy’s arrest in New Orleans. Members of both the Plessy and Ferguson families attended a ceremony at the corner of Press and Royal Streets in New Orleans on February 12, 2009. In 2022 Governor John Bel Edwards pardoned Plessy for violating the Separate Car Act.