America wasn't ready for Homer Plessy in 1896. Are we now?
In late 2019, when my editor at the New York Times obituary desk asked me if I wanted to write an “Overlooked No More” obituary for Homer Plessy, I had to pause for a long moment to call up that name. I knew, of course, about Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision that legalized the doctrine of “separate but equal” which proved to be the foundation of insidious Jim Crow racism in America for the next 60 years.
The landmark ruling, that made certain that people of color would remain segregated from public transportation, schools, public buildings, lodgings and lunch counters, generally rates little more than a paragraph or two in American history text books despite its profound impact on the struggle for equality and justice for African-Americans through much of the 20th century. Given recent events such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of white supremacist hate groups that followed, the shadow of Plessy v. Ferguson remains long.
As I set out to write the obituary, I had a simple question: Who was Homer Plessy and what led him to become a name etched in our nation’s history?
When he boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s #8 train at the Press Street Station in New Orleans on June 7, 1892, Plessy was a 29-year-old multiracial shoemaker who had been born and raised in the Crescent City during a period of relative harmony in the turbulent post-Civil War south. One of the many “free people of color” who had flocked to New Orleans, mostly of French-speaking Creole descent, Plessy had grown up in a time of societal integration, education and equality. Reconstruction had found an uneasy but stable place in the city, but by the 1890s, the stirrings of segregation were ominous.
Plessy was an activist and a member of several citizens groups. When the Louisiana Separate Car Act was passed in 1890, creating train cars for whites only, these groups became alarmed and began to organize resistance. One group, the Citizens Committee, decided to instigate a test case in the hopes that it would reach the United States Supreme Court and the Separate Car Act would be struck down. Homer Plessy volunteered to buy a first-class ticket, board that train, and get arrested for sitting in the “whites only” car.
The group chose Plessy because he could easily pass for a white man. He was later described in a court brief as "seven-eighths white." The plan required the train conductor to be part of the scheme. When Plessy sat down in the first-class car, the conductor stopped him and asked if he was “colored” to which Plessy replied, “Yes, I am.”
The conductor ordered Plessy to leave the car and relocate to the colored car. Plessy refused. Having gone just a single stop, Plessy was hustled off the train by several white passengers and arrested by a private detective, also in on the plan. He was taken to the police station where the Committee posted bail so he would not have to spend any time in jail. Four months later, when he appeared in the criminal courtroom of Judge John Howard Ferguson, a jurist born in Chilmark, Massachusetts, Ferguson chose not to hold a trial but instead upheld the Separate Car Act, thus setting up an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When that case finally reached the Court four years later, hopes for a landmark victory were dashed when the justices ignored the equal protection statute under the 14th Amendment and voted 7 to 1 against Plessy, citing the sinister concept of separate but equal. Albion Tourgee, a white lawyer and civil rights crusader, who represented Plessy, said the ruling was a sham. “It’s only effect is to perpetuate the stigma of color — to make the curse immortal, incurable, inevitable,” he said. It wouldn’t be until 1954, in “Brown v Board of Education” that the Supreme Court upheld the 14th Amendment and outlawed the Plessy ruling.
Who was Homer Plessy and what led him to become a name etched in our nation’s history?
For his part, Plessy returned home, pled guilty in the district court and paid a $25 fine. He returned to a life of obscurity and his brave act of resistance was mostly lost to history. But late last week, the Louisiana Board of Pardons voted unanimously to recommend that Plessy be pardoned. They sent their ruling to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to sign. It’s unimaginable that Edwards will refuse to sign it.
While working on my story, I came across two extraordinary people; Keith Plessy, a distant cousin to Homer Plessy, and Phoebe Ferguson, the great, great-granddaughter of Judge Ferguson. The pair teamed up nearly 20 years ago to shine a spotlight on the heroic act of civil disobedience of Homer Plessy. They were a moving force, along with New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams, in getting the pardon approved.
“When Homer Plessy died in 1925, everyone remembered his name as somewhat the poster child of segregation,” Keith Plessy told The Guardian. “And this stigma can be removed from his memory by honoring him in the right way. By recognizing that the law itself was a crime.”
Since his obituary appeared in The Times in 2020, about 95 years late, it is fitting that Plessy is finally making headlines for a much-deserved reversal of an unjust history.