Plessy, Homer Adolph 1862–1925
Homer Adolph Plessy 1862–1925
Civil Rights activist
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are widely considered an especially dismal period in African-American history. For a dozen years after the Civil War the Washington-controlled Reconstruction program oversaw the former Confederate states and made a strong effort to provide free Blacks with the full rights of citizenship. During Reconstruction hundreds of Black men sat insouthern state legislatures, and several Blacks were sent to the United States Congress. However, the progress made during this era soon came undone. The end of Reconstruction in 1877 unleashed virulently anti-Black forces that eventually pushed African Americans into a kind of semi-servitude that lasted for decades. In 1896, racism was given legitimacy by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case which determined that a Louisiana state law requiring Black railroad passengers to sit in a separate car did not violate the United States Constitution. “By its decision the Supreme Court constitution-alized the state enactment of race prejudice,” wrote Barton J. Bernstein in the Journal of Negro History.
Although Homer Adolph Plessy’s name is prominent in American history, little is known about Plessy himself other than basic facts taken from public records. Plessy was born a free Black in New Orleans on March 17, 1862. His parents were Adolphe Plessy and Rosa Debergue. A French-speaking Roman Catholic of mostly European ancestry (the name Plessy is probably a corruption of the French name Plessis), he was considered Black because one of his great-grandparents had been Black.
Plessy, whose father died when he was five, began work as a shoemaker in 1879 (in some accounts he is listed as a carpenter), and in 1888 he married Louise Bordenave. The couple lived on North Claiborne Avenue in the Treme section of New Orleans, a racially mixed, middle-class neighborhood where whites and Blacks mingled with relative ease. Plessy served as vice president of a local benevolent organization, the Societe des Francs Amis, which provided medical and funeral expenses for dues-paying members.
It is possible that Plessy’s connection to the Societe des Francs Amis led to his involvement with the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law. In 1887, Florida became the first state to require railroads to provide separate cars for Black passengers. Several states soon followed suit, including Louisiana in 1890. Individuals disobeying the Louisiana Separate Car Law faced a #25 fine or twenty days in jail. Railroads were fined #500 if a separate car was not provided.
Almost immediately after the Separate Car Law was passed in Louisiana, New Orleans Blacks began organized protests against it. According to historian C. Vann Woodward writing in American Counterpoint Blacks in Louisiana were better able than Blacks in other states to voice their objections to discriminatory measures. “One source of leadership and strength that Louisiana Negroes
At a Glance…
Born on March 17, 1862, in New Orleans, LA,; died on March 1, 1925, in New Orleans, LA; parents: Adolphe Plessy and Rosa Debergue Plessy; married Louise Bordenave, 1888. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Began work as a shoemaker in 1879; Civil rights activist, 1892-96; later worked as a collector for the People’s Life Insurance Company.
enjoyed that Blacks in no other states shared was a well-established upper class of mixed racial origin in New Orleans with a strong infusion of French and other Latin intermixtures,” Woodward wrote. “Among these people were descendants of the ‘Free People of Color,’ some of them men of culture, education, and wealth, often with a heritage of several generations of freedom. Unlike the great majority of Negroes, they were city people with an established professional class and a high degree of literacy…. By ancestry as well as by residence, they were associated with Latin cultures that were in some way at variance with Anglo-American ideas of race relations.”
The Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law was established in 1891 by a group of leading Black New Orleanians, including Louis A. Martinet, founder of the Crusader, a newspaper advocating Black civil rights, and Rodolphe L. Desdunes, a poet and journalist. The Committee intended to challenge the Separate Car Law by way of a “test case.” Albion W. Tourgee, a white Northerner who had been a Reconstruction official in North Carolina, offered his services as the committee’s legal counsel free of charge. To assist Tourgee, the committee raised money to hire James C. Walker, a local white attorney and member of the Republican party. Although a Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, had ended Reconstruction, most white Southerners still considered the G.O.P. a Northern organization hostile to Southern attitudes.
The committee’s “test case” called for a Black man to deliberately break the Louisiana Separate Car Law so that his case might then be tried in federal court. It was hoped the court would find that the Louisiana law was not in accord with the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution which had abolished slavery and guaranteed the rights of citizenship and equal protection under the law for Blacks. Tourgee believed that the test case would be strengthened if the Black man arrested was someone whose race was not easy to categorize. The light-skinned Homer Plessy was given the job.
On June 7,1892, Plessy went to the Press Street Station in New Orleans and bought a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad to Covington, a city about forty miles north. The railroad, which did not support the Separate Car Law because of the expense and trouble involved in having to add an extra car, even if only a single Black passenger happened to be on board, had agreed to cooperate with the test case. Soon after the train pulled out of Press Street Station, the conductor informed Plessy he had to move to the “colored car.” When Plessy refused to move, the conductor asked the engineer to stop the train. At this point a private detective hired by the committee boarded the train and made it clear to Plessy that he was disobeying state law by sitting in the “whites only” carriage. Plessy again refused and was consequently arrested by the detective and taken to a local police station. Committee members were waiting at the police station and provided a #500 bond allowing Plessy freedom until his court trial.
Appearing before Judge John Howard Ferguson of the Criminal District Court for the Parish of New Orleans, Plessy’s attorneys Tourgee and Walker argued that the Separate Car Law was in conflict with the United States Constitution. Separate accommodations were a symbol of servitude, they maintained, and denied Blacks equal treatment under the law. Judge Ferguson ruled against Plessy, claiming that a state law requiring separate accommodations was not unfair as long as the accommodations were equal. Equal accommodations, Ferguson noted, did not have to be identical with those provided for whites. Keith Weldon Medley of Smithsonian quoted Ferguson as saying the Separate Car Law had not deprived Plessy of his liberty as a citizen, but only of his “’liberty of doing as he pleased, and of violating a penal statute with impunity.’” Tourgee and Walker appealed Plessy’s case, now called Plessy v. Ferguson, to the Louisiana State Supreme Court which also ruled against Plessy.
Paul Oberst in the Arizona Law Review quoted the Louisiana Supreme Court as maintaining that the Separate Car Law “’applies to the two races with such perfect fairness and equality that the record brought up for our inspection does not disclose whether the person prosecuted is a white or a colored man. The charge is simply that he did ’then and there, unlawfully, insist on going into a coach to which, by race, he did not belong.”
Denied a rehearing before the state court, Plessy’s legal representatives managed to obtain a writ of error which allowed the case to be sent to the United States Supreme Court. A backlog of cases resulted in a wait of over three years before Plessy v. Ferguson was heard by the highest court in the nation. Tourgee was pleased by the delay, hoping that during the extra time public support might be gathered for Plessy’s cause and that the public support might sway the opinion of some of the justices. Oberst quoted an 1893 letter from Tourgee to committee leader Louis A. Martinet in which Tourgee advises that committee to “’bend every possible energy to secure the discussion of the principle in such a way as to reach and awaken public sentiment…. If we can get the ear of the Country, and argue the matter fully before the people first, we may incline the wavering to fall on our side when the matter comes up.’”
Tourgee’s efforts to gain public support largely fell upon deaf ears. Influential northern white progressives of the type who had pushed for the abolition of slavery earlier in the century were mostly disinterested in the plight of free Blacks. There was a widespread notion, based on ignorance of actual conditions in the south, that free Blacks could easily fend for themselves. Also, the problems of European immigrants crowding into northern cities seemed a more immediate and compelling issue to most social reformers of the period.
Plessy v. Ferguson was finally heard by the Supreme Court in April of 1896. In addition to attacking the constitutionality of the Louisiana Separate Car Law under both the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments, Tourgee and Walker’s argument also questioned the validity of allowing train conductors to assign passengers to racial categories on the basis of casual scrutiny. Plessy’s status as a “colored” man had never been stated in any court and part of Tourgee and Walker’s argument was that if Plessy looked white he was entitled to the privileges enjoyed by white people. Being treated like a white man was a property right which the East Louisiana Railroad had denied to Plessy.
On May 18, 1896, the court handed down a seven-justice majority decision against Plessy. Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented and Justice David Brewer did not participate. The majority opinion quickly dismissed all aspects of Tourgee and Walker’s arguments except the issue of whether state law had the power to demand racial separation. Speaking for the majority, Justice Henry Billings Brown, as quoted by Woodward, maintained that the validity of any segregation law depends upon its “‘reasonableness’” and that reasonableness must be determined by ’ “reference to 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.’” Brown went on to declare that “‘We consider the underlying fallacy of the plantiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with the badge of inferiority. If this is 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.’” The majority opinion in the Plessy v. Ferguson case is considered one of the most fatuous decisions in Supreme Court history. The court’s assertion that race separation was a traditional and established custom in the South was clearly false. Under the slave-system there had been constant interaction between whites and Blacks. Even after the end of slavery rigid separation practices (a system commonly referred to as “Jim Crow,” taking its name from a dim-witted Black character in minstrel shows), were not widespread. As Bernstein wrote: “Racial segregation in the Old South had been unknown. The system of slavery would have been virtually inoperative had Jim Crow prevailed. Nor did Jim Crow spontaneously arise after the war. Negroes and whites frequently shared the same coaches; although sometimes freedmen were barred from the first-class cars, the races did share the same second-class coaches.”
The legal precedents cited by Brown in the majority opinion were a weak assortment of lower court rulings mostly having to do with segregated schools, chiefly Roberts v. the City of Boston, an 1850 case brought before Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts which established that separate schools for children of different races were no less valid than separate school for children of different sexes or ages. That Roberts v. the City of Boston had been decided before the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments had been adopted and was thus irrelevant was a fact the court simply ignored.
In his dissenting opinion Justice Harlan said that “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…. We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow citizens—our equals before the law. The thin disguise of ’equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”
Historians cite a variety of reasons why the court ruled against Plessy. Among these reasons is a desire by late-nineteenth century Americans to narrow the divide between North and South by giving in to what seemed to be the wishes of the majority of white southerners. Race separation was especially attractive to working class and poor southern whites who feared competition for jobs from Black workers. “Thirty years after the Civil War, the country wanted to put that conflict behind it. In the process, the issue of civil rights for African Americans took a back seat. Economic growth was the national preoccupation,” wrote Harvey Fireside in Plessy V. Ferguson: Separate But Equal?.
Another reason often cited is the writings of certain social theorists who, using distorted Darwinian ideas, insisted that there was scientific evidence proving that whites were naturally superior to Blacks and that whites of northern European ancestry were superior to other whites. The popularity of “Social Darwinism” caused many educated Americans to believe that racism was justified by science and beneficial to society since it allowed the supposedly better element to be firmly in control. The significance of the Plessy decision was not apparent at the time of its occurrence. The New York Times ran only a brief factual article about the ruling along with other railroad related news on page three.
After the Supreme Court ruling against Plessy, the Committee to Test the Separate Car Law disbanded. In January of 1897, Homer Plessy stood before a Louisiana court, pleaded guilty to violating the Separate Car Law, and paid the required #25 fine. Plessy lived the remainder of his life in obscurity, later becoming a life insurance collector for the People’s Life Insurance Company, and died in New Orleans on March 1, 1925. He was buried in the city’s St. Louis Cemetery, no 1. His vindication had to wait another 29 years. In the meantime, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowed extremist racial attitudes to prevail in the South and led to an almost complete separation of southern whites and Blacks during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1954, the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, which outlawed segregated schools, effectively overtured Plessy v. Ferguson and resulted in a vigorous resurgence of the Black civil rights movement.
Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. New York: Macmillan, 2000.
Fireside, Harvey. Plessy v. Ferguson: Separate But Equal? Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.
Garraty, John A.(ed.) Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Woodward, C. Vann. American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue. Boston: Little Brown, 1971.
Arizona Law Review, V. 15, pp. 389-418.
Journal of Negro History, July 1962, pp. 192-98, July 1963, pp. 196-205, April 1977, pp. 125-33.
New York Times, May 19, 1896, p. 3.
Smithsonian, February 1994, pp. 105-17.
Afro-American Almanac, http://www.toptags.com/aama.
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