By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor
On this day in 1892 Homer Plessy was arrested for refusing to leave his seat in the “whites-only” car of a train. The resulting court case, which Plessy lost, generated one of the most disgraceful decisions the Supreme Court of the United States ever made.
On June 7, 1892 thirty year old Homer A. Plessy boarded a train in New Orleans. A short time later, Plessy was arrested and removed from the train at Press and Royal streets by a private detective with arrest powers. The detective had actually been hired by the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans), a civil rights group of which Plessy was a member. They were challenging Louisiana’s 1890 separate-car law.
Homer Plessy was born Homère Patrice Plessy to French speaking Creole parents. His middle name was later changed to Adolphe, after his father. He was what was called an “octraoon,” meaning that he was 7/8 white, and had one-eighth African blood. He was light skinned, and could easily pass for white. In fact, 122 years ago today, Plessy bought a first-class ticket and boarded the “whites only” car.
The Committee hired the private detective to arrest him and remove him from the train in order to create a court case. Plessy was not a lawyer or politician. His primary attribute that made him perfect for the assignment was that he was white enough to buy a ticket to a whites only coach, but black enough to be in violation of the segregation law.
Incidentally, the railroad companies did not like the law. It meant that if even a single person of color bought a ticket, they had to add a “colored” car to the train, adding to their own expense, which would have otherwise been unnecessary.
After his arrest, he was taken to the Orleans Parish jail, where he stayed overnight. He was released the next day on $500 bond.
One month after his arrest, Plessy’s case was heard by Judge John Howard Ferguson. His lawyer, Albion Tourgee, argued that Plessy’s civil rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments had been violated. Judge Ferguson rejected this argument, ruling that Louisiana law gave the state the power to regulate railroads within the state, which included enforcing segregation laws.
The Louisiana State Supreme Court upheld Ferguson’s ruling. They did not allow a rehearing, but did allow a petition for writ of error. This petition was granted Certiorari by the US Supreme Court.
Four years later, arguments for Plessy v. Ferguson were heard by the Court. Attorney Albion Tourgée argued that the state of Louisiana had violated the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments. In particular Tourgée pointed to Section One of the 14th Amendment, which states:
“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.”
Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion of the Supreme Court on May 18, 1896. The court found for the State of Louisiana and Judge Ferguson in it’s 7-1 majority opinion. There were eight votes due to the absence of Justice David Brewer, whose daughter had passed away. The dissenting vote was by Justice John Marshall Harlan. One line from Harlan’s dissent has been quoted widely:
“I am of opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that state and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States.”
The Plessy v. Ferguson decision created the doctrine of “separate but equal.” It also legitimized the machinery of segregation. Equal rights laws passed after the Civil War were set aside, and impetus was given to increasingly rigid segregation laws in the South. The idea that anything went as long as it was called “equal” by the states. However, education was one of the first public institutions to be adversely affected. Funding for all black schools suffered, and were anything but equal.
Things did not change until the Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954. The ill-considered and wrong-headed decision of the SCOTUS in Plessy v. Ferguson was reversed.
122 years ago today, a humble but brave shoemaker boarded a train, setting in motion a series of events that left a permanent stain on the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Ruling: PLESSY v. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)