Homer Adolph Plessy (born Homère Patris Plessy; 1862 or March 17, 1863[a] – March 1, 1925) was an American shoemaker and activist, best known as the plaintiff in the United States Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. He staged an act of civil disobedience to challenge one of Louisiana's racial segregation laws and bring a test case to force the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of segregation laws. The Court decided against Plessy. The resulting "separate but equal" legal doctrine determined that state-mandated segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as long as the facilities provided for both black and white people were putatively "equal". The legal precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson would last into the mid-20th century, until a series of landmark Supreme Court decisions gradually set new precedents concerning segregation, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Plessy was born a free person of color in a family of French-speaking Louisiana Creole people. Growing up during the Reconstruction era, Plessy lived in a society in which black children attended integrated schools, black men could vote, and interracial marriage was legal. However, many of those civil rights eroded following the withdrawal of U.S. federal troops from the former Confederacy in 1877. In the 1880s, Plessy became involved in political activism, and in 1892, the civil rights group Comité des Citoyens recruited him for an act of civil disobedience to challenge Louisiana's Separate Car Act, which required separate accommodations for black and white people on railroads. On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a ticket for a "whites only" first-class train coach, boarded the train, and was arrested by a private detective hired by the group. Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled against Plessy in a state criminal district court, upholding the law on the grounds that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroads within its borders. Plessy appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case four years later in 1896 and ruled 7–1 in favor of Louisiana, establishing the "separate but equal" doctrine as a legal basis for the Jim Crow laws that would remain in effect into the 1950s and 1960s.
There is some dispute over Plessy's date of birth. He may have been born in 1862, or he may have been born under the name Homère Patris Plessy on March 17, 1863.[a] He was the second of two children in a French-speaking Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. Later documents give his name as Homer Adolph Plessy or Homère Adolphe Plessy. His father, a carpenter named Joseph Adolphe Plessy, and his mother, a seamstress named Rosa Debergue, were both mixed-race free people of color. Homer's paternal grandfather, Germain Plessy was a white Frenchman born in Bordeaux circa 1777. Germain Plessy lived in the French Saint-Domingue colony, before moving to New Orleans during the 1790s as part of a group of thousands of expatriates who fled the Haitian Revolution. Under the plaçage system practiced in French Caribbean colonies, Germain Plessy later lived in a civil union with Catherine Mathieu, a free woman of color of French and African ancestry, and they had eight children. According to pre-Civil War records, Homer's maternal grandparents were both of African descent or mixed race. Many of Homer's ancestors and relatives were property-owning tradesmen, including blacksmiths, carpenters, and shoemakers.
Joseph Adolphe Plessy died in 1869. Two years later in 1871, Homer's mother married Victor M. Dupart, a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service who supplemented his income by working as a shoemaker. Dupart had six children from a previous marriage; in addition to bringing Homer and his sister Ida to the marriage, Plessy's mother had one child with Dupart. Plessy's stepfather was politically engaged, having paid poll taxes in 1869 and 1870 in order to vote. He also joined the Unification Movement of 1873, a civil rights movement promoting political equality, racial unity, and an end to discrimination in Reconstruction-era Louisiana.
Plessy grew up in a society in which black people had gained unprecedented civil rights in Louisiana. Beginning in 1868, all black men could vote if they paid a poll tax. The state implemented a racially integrated school system in 1869. The state legislature legalized interracial marriage in 1870. And more than 200 black men held elected offices at the state and local levels in the 1870s. However, many of those gains eroded following the withdrawal of U.S. federal troops from the former Confederacy in 1877. When white Democrats returned to power in the late 1870s, they began to defund public education for black people and the Louisiana Constitution of 1879 ended integrated schools.
Plessy followed his stepfather and became both a shoemaker and a political activist. During the 1880s, he worked at Patricio Brito's shoe-making business in New Orleans's French Quarter. He married nineteen-year-old Louise Bordenave at St. Augustine Church in 1888; Brito served as a witness. In 1889, he and his wife moved to Faubourg Tremé, a racially integrated middle-class neighborhood of New Orleans at the time, and he registered to vote in the Sixth Ward's Third Precinct.
His political involvement began in the post-Reconstruction 1880s. In 1887, he served as vice-president of the fifty-person Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans. Not only had Louisiana abolished racially integrated schools in 1879, but many of the public schools in New Orleans were unable to stay open in the 1880s due to a lack of funding. In response, the organization published a pamphlet declaring its intention to collect and build a community library and appealing to the Louisiana state government for "our fair share of public education" with safeguards against "fraud and manipulation, thereby insuring [sic] good teachers, a full term and all necessary articles for the maintenance of schools, which at this moment we have not."
Main article: Plessy v. Ferguson
In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which required separate accommodations for black and white people on railroads, including separate railroad cars. A group of eighteen prominent black, creole of color, and white creole New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) to challenge the law. Many staff members of The New Orleans Crusader, a black Republican newspaper, were among the group's members, including publisher Louis A. Martinet, writer Rodolphe Desdunes, and managing editor L. J. Joubert, who served as president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club at the same time Plessy was Vice President.
The group contacted attorney and civil rights advocate Albion W. Tourgée, who agreed to help them bring a test case to court in order to force the judiciary to determine the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws. In his correspondence with Martinet, Tourgée suggested finding a plaintiff who had "not more than one-eight colored blood" and could pass as white. The attorney hoped that by selecting a person of ambiguous racial identity, he might exploit the Louisiana legislature's failure to define race and to force the court to consider the inconclusiveness of scientific evidence on definitive racial categories. In court, he would later argue that a man of one-eighth African ancestry may not even know to which race he belongs, so a railroad employee would be even less qualified to "decide the question of race" and determine in what car a mixed-race individual ought to sit.
Tourgée also suggested finding a female plaintiff, because he believed the courts might be more sympathetic to a woman being ejected from a railroad car. However, the Comité des Citoyens instead recruited musician Daniel Desdunes, the son of group member Rodolphe Desdunes. Martinet contacted several railroad companies to inform them of the group's intentions. The railroads overwhelmingly opposed the Separate Car Act because it raised their operating costs by forcing them to use additional cars that might only be at half capacity. Some companies enforced the law, while others did not. Martinet eventually enlisted the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company to participate in the group's plan. On February 24, 1892, Daniel Desdunes purchased a first-class ticket on a train bound for Mobile, Alabama. After he sat in a "whites only" car, the conductor stopped the train, and a private detective hired by the Comité des Citoyens arrested Desdunes. The prosecution dropped their case against Desdunes in May 1892, however, after the Louisiana State Supreme Court ruled that the Separate Car Act did not apply to interstate railroad trips.
In order to bring their test case to court, the Comité des Citoyens had to stage another incident on a train trip entirely within Louisiana state lines. They recruited Plessy, who may have been a friend of Rodolphe Desdunes, to be the plaintiff. Martinet contacted the East Louisiana Railroad, one of the companies that opposed the law, and declared their intentions to stage an act of civil disobedience. He also hired the services of private detective Chris C. Cain to arrest Plessy and ensure that he was charged with violating the Separate Car Act and not with a misdemeanor such as disturbing the peace.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad running between the Press Street Depot in New Orleans and Covington, Louisiana, an approximately thirty-mile journey that would have taken two hours. He sat in the "whites only" passenger car. When conductor J. J. Dowling came to collect Plessy's ticket, he told Plessy to leave the "whites only" car.[b] Plessy refused. The conductor stopped the train, walked back to the depot, and returned with Detective Cain. Cain and other passengers forcibly removed Plessy from the train. Cain then arrested Plessy and took him to the Orleans Parish jail. The Comité des Citoyens arrived at the jail, arranged for him to be released, and paid his $500 bond the following day by offering up a committee member's house as collateral.
On October 28, 1892, Plessy was arraigned before Judge John Howard Ferguson in the Orleans Parish criminal district court. He was represented by New Orleans lawyer James Walker, who submitted a plea challenging the jurisdiction of trial court by claiming that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution, which provided for equal protection under the law and "impermissibly clothed train officers with the authority and duty to assign passengers on the basis of race and with the authority to refuse service." Walker's plea deliberately did not specify if Plessy was black or white. On November 18, Ferguson overruled Walker's petition, stating that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies while they operated within state boundaries. Four days later, Walker petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition to stop the trial.
In December 1892, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed Ferguson's ruling, and denied Walker's subsequent request for a rehearing. In speaking for the court's decision that Ferguson's judgment did not violate the 14th Amendment, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Charles Erasmus Fenner cited a number of precedents, including two key cases from Northern states. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled in 1849—before the 14th amendment—that segregated schools were constitutional. In answering the charge that segregation perpetuated racial prejudice, the Massachusetts court stated: "This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law." The law itself was repealed five years later, but the precedent stood.
On January 5, 1893, Walker applied for a writ of error, which the United States Supreme Court accepted. Tourgée would represent Plessy before the Supreme Court and enlisted the aid of former Solicitor General Samuel F. Phillips as co-counsel. The case first appeared on the docket in January 1893, but Tourgée wrote to the Comité des Citoyens voicing his concerns that they would lose. In the three years since the Comité des Citoyens first organized, the court's makeup had changed under the administration of President Benjamin Harrison and had taken on a more segregationist tilt. He hoped that unsympathetic justices would change their minds with time or retire, writing in one letter: "The Court has always been the foe of liberty until forced to move on by public opinion." In the 1890s, a case could take several years to appear before reaching the Supreme Court, and Plessy's lawyers hoped to delay until close to the 1896 United States presidential election, in the hopes the election might influence the outcome in their favor. However, the court called the case in spring 1896, and the oral arguments of Plessy v. Ferguson were held on April 13. Tourgée argued that the State of Louisiana had violated the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment that stated, "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, and property without due process of law." He also argued that segregation laws inherently implied that black people were inferior, and therefore stigmatized them with a second-class status that violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, which reads: "nor shall any State ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court issued a 7–1 decision against Plessy that upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana's train car segregation laws. Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion, first dismissing any claim that the Louisiana law violated the Thirteenth Amendment, which, in the majority's opinion, did no more than ensure that black Americans had the basic level of legal equality needed to abolish slavery. Next, the Court considered whether the law violated the Equal Protection Clause, concluding that although the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to guarantee legal equality of all races in America, it was not intended to prevent social or other types of discrimination.
The object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.— Plessy, 163 U.S. at 543–44.
The Court also rejected Tourgée's argument that segregation laws marked black Americans with "a badge of inferiority," and said that racial prejudice could not be overcome by legislation.
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 on it.— Plessy, 163 U.S. at 551.
Brown's opinion ended with a note on the subject of Plessy's racial identity under the law. He wrote that while the question of whether Plessy was legally black or white may have bearing on the outcome of the criminal case, legal definitions of racial categories were an issue of state law not before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, Brown deferred to Louisiana law to determine whether Plessy was legally black or white.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Plessy's criminal trial went ahead in Ferguson's court in Louisiana on February 11, 1897. He pleaded guilty of violating the Separate Car Act, which carried a punishment of a $25 fine or twenty days in jail. He opted to pay the fine. The Comité des Citoyens disbanded shortly after the trial's end. The shoemaking profession declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to large-scale industrial production, so Plessy later took jobs as a laborer, warehouseman, clerk, and insurance premium collected for the black-owned People's Life Insurance Company. He died on March 1, 1925. His obituary read: "Homer Plessy — on Sunday, March 1, 1925, at 5:10 a.m. beloved husband of Louise Bordenave." He was buried in the Debergue-Blanco family tomb in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The "Separate but Equal" doctrine, enshrined by the Plessy ruling, remained valid until 1954 when it was overturned by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and later completely outlawed by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though the Plessy case did not involve education, it formed the legal basis of separate school systems for the following fifty-eight years.
On February 10, 2009, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the players on both sides of the Supreme Court case, appeared together on TV station WLTV in New Orleans. They announced the formation of the Plessy & 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 an understanding of this historic case and its effect on the American conscience.
On February 12, 2009, the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation of New Orleans honored the successes of the civil rights movement by taking part in the placing of a historical marker at the corner of Press and Royal Streets, the site of Homer Plessy's arrest in New Orleans in 1892. A portion of Press Street was renamed after Plessy in 2018.
On January 5, 2022, Plessy was pardoned by John Bel Edwards, Governor of Louisiana, posthumously relieving Plessy of the conviction.
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