122 years ago today, a humble but brave shoemaker boarded a train.

By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor

500px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_CourtOn 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) 


The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

50 thoughts on “122 years ago today, a humble but brave shoemaker boarded a train.”

  1. on 1, June 8, 2014 at 10:14 amChuck Stanley
    “I find it amazing that you are able to discern with such precision what other bloggers on this site know or don’t know. Really?

    How the hell do you know what I–or anyone else–knows about who did what, when they might have done it, or where they may have done it?”
    Seems like that is a running theme on these threads, assertions, allegations, assumptions.

    Revisionist History 101, a non credited course for your entertainment.

  2. Good for Justice Harlan and for Plessy, for fighting the good fight, even though it precipitated a serious setback for a while. At first I wondered, why manufacture a case when there would be so many actual cases. But Plessy might have thought he had the best chance of being taken seriously, since he could “pass.”

    And it is also true that discrimination was rampant in the North, as well.

    It is interesting to note that it was legislative action that finally heralded civil rights, not judicial action.

    1. Karen, It was a combination of both legislation and court decisions which paved the way, with a good dose of executive action by FDR, Truman and of course LBJ.

  3. Randyjet, you are absolutely correct, how dare the courts order a state to obey the constitution and treat people equal. While were at can we please get those drinking fountains back for blacks only. And how about those busses, please, who needs blacks on busses. I mean come on. We voted to take away their rights, what right does a court have to demand equal treatment! Honestly, the hubris of some judges.

    1. Paul, it is YOU who is on the side of the Plessy vs Ferguson SCOTUS decision that was a judicial activism gone amok. That decision overrode the clear intent and rights granted by the 14th Amendment. You would be correct IF you can show me any part of the Constitution or past legal precedent that grants gay marriage as a right. When the Warren Court threw out the anti-miscegenation laws and stated that marriage is a RIGHT, it takes a deluded person to think that they meant GAY marriage. Gay marriage had not even been THOUGHT off at the time, much less granted as a right! So to then use the term marriage to encompass gay marriage is delusional and an outright fraud, and intellectually dishonest. If you wish to use contemporary usage to justify gay marriage as being a right, then you will have to grant the same to plural marriages since that DOES have a LOT of legal, and biblical, precedent. If you deny the right to plural marriage being sanctioned by the term marriage in the Loving decision, then you cannot use that same term to justify gay marriage. In fact, the term marriage can be logically and legally used to define and justify plural marriages given the long history of that in many other cultures.

      The ONLY thing that the 14th amendment denies the state to do in regards to marriage in terms of equal treatment, is that they CANNOT ban gays from marriage to persons of the opposite sex. A state cannot institute a gayness or straightness test to join in marriage. If a state mandated that a person would have to prove that they were not gay, then the state would have to provide some compelling state interest in doing that. THAT would be discrimination and a denial of their rights. The same would be true if there were a requirement to prove fertility to get marriage license. In fact, millions of gays ARE married and have NOT been discriminated against when they married persons of the opposite sex. It may well be a compelling state interest to keep the ban on gay marriage since millions of gays HAVE married and produced children, which is a benefit to society. With gay marriage as an option, many people who are with us now would probably never have been born. Be careful of what you wish for, there are lots of unintended consequences.

      1. randyjet – would you like to back up the following statement

        In fact, millions of gays ARE married and have NOT been discriminated against when they married persons of the opposite sex.

  4. Paul,
    I find it amazing that you are able to discern with such precision what other bloggers on this site know or don’t know. Really?

    How the hell do you know what I–or anyone else–knows about who did what, when they might have done it, or where they may have done it?

  5. It is nice of some of you to give anecdotal accounts of things that happened to others that showed the segregation in the South. It actually took place in the North as well. Few of you know of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who was willing to put his body in the line of fire for his race. He was in the civil rights movement long before MLK and was effective in showing the hypocrisy of the Northern Democratic Party is dealing with the Southern segregationist Democrats.
    He desegregated the ‘whites only’ dining room at the US House of Representatives when elected.

  6. The reason for a Constitution is to avoid human error and bias. The Constitution is our legal protection on American soil and against corruption. However, we humans finagle a way to insert our own beliefs and ideas into the decision of issues.

  7. The Plessey decision was a conservative (politically) usurpation of a clear constitutional mandate in the 14th. That was what the 14th was all about. The lone brave dissenter, Harlan, recognized this in what was an outstanding conservative (legally) opinion. Read this quote from his dissent:

    “There is a dangerous tendency in these latter days to enlarge the functions of the courts by means of judicial interference with the will of the people as expressed by the legislature. Our institutions have the distinguishing characteristic that the three departments of government are coordinate and separate. Each must keep within the limits defined by the Constitution. And the courts best discharge their duty by executing the will of the lawmaking power, constitutionally expressed, leaving the results of legislation to be dealt with by the people through their representatives. ”

    Unfortunately, the modern day Supreme Court has taken the same 14th and usurped the ‘will of the people as expressed by the legislature’ in order to accomplish their own liberal (politically) usurpation.

    Some cheer today(as no doubt the conservatives did in 1896) when they achieve a political victory via the Court not able to be obtained via the Congress, President, and state governments (the Constitutional system) but at some point in time the Solomon’s will err in their divination to a degree that will finally and completely cut in half the republic itself.

    When the Court changes the meaning of words in order to achieve a politically desired result (either conservative or liberal) our system of government is undermined.

    The end justifies the means method produces short term gain (for the side exercising their power) but in the long run it pulls the rug out from underneath everyone.

    1. Bryan, I have made those points repeatedly in regards to court mandated gay marriage. If folks want gay marriage, they need to do it as NY State did it. It was an astounding breach of judicial power when the MA Supreme Court not only held that banning gay marriage was not legal, but then they ORDERED the legislature to pass a law that they in effect wrote. Incredible.

  8. rafflaw

    You are correct that Plessy was a stain on our history.
    Considering some of the previous comments denigrating the man, I believe you are speaking of the court’s decision, not the man.

  9. Not sure what was so brave about Plessy.

    spoken like a true keyboard commando.

    type us up some more bravery. shoot off a couple of e-mails bragging about it.

  10. So many people cannot recognize injustice when they see it. Human minds jump to conclusions rather than using a decent level of reasoning.

  11. Randy,
    Roger that. Also, any “colored” person (especially if male) ran really serious risks if they deliberately–and sometimes inadvertently–stuck a thumb in the eye of the white establishment. Discounting bravery is a tactic.

    The father of one of my acquaintances was beaten to a bloody pulp when he approached the gate to a fighter squadron air base with a fellow pilot who was black. Shouts of “nigger lover” hurled at him, then he was beaten up. He just happened to have light skin and blue eyes–just like Plessy. The Air Base? It was in Alabama. Place called Tuskegee and there was a war on.

    He was charged with “inciting a riot.” Way to go, blame the victim. Beat up a P-51D pilot, a combat vet, and it is not the fault of the thugs, but the “colored guy.”

    He was later cleared of all charges. Got his PhD after he got out of the service and became a University professor. But he never forgot that incident and it still chafes his daughter seventy years later, now a professor herself.

    For those who don’t think Homer Plessy was particularly brave, I refer you to an iconic song and some narration by Nina Simone.


    Yeah, Plessy wasn’t brave at all. But believe what you will.

  12. If we could segregate Rednecks from the rest of society it would be a good thing. Some folks show their true spirit on this blog. Lets blame Plessy for segregation in the South and North. We can then blame Dred Scott for slavery. I don’t know who we blame in Citizens United. Perhaps the Supreme Court. Perhaps the Koch Brothers.

  13. Paul S

    Do you really think that segregation was caused by Plessy, I.e., that there would not have been segregation if he had not brought the test case, and believe that segregation ended in 1954? Seriously, I’d appreciate you elaborating your position on both topics.

    1. Don, It is hopeless to ask for rational responses from bigots and those who only think that they have to state something and it is true. This is a fools errand when a person can blame the victims for their plight.

  14. Not sure what was so brave about Plessy. It was a set up. He bought the ticket and got arrested by his own officer. There is nothing in this article that shows he was either humble or brave. He actually set in motion a system of segregation that would last until 1954.

    People who lived in the South during this period will tell you that the ‘colored section’ sign was movable and was moved forward and back as the size of the crowd in the bus or street car changed. On trains there were separate cars and Plessy refused to move to the “colored” car.

    As a side note, MLK, jr. bragged of riding in the whites only car while he was going to and from college.

    Additional side note “Separate but equal” does not appear in the decision. Equal rights were not set aside as you state. As long as the facilities were equal, blacks and whites could not be ‘forced’ to share the same facilities.

    This is the law of unintended consequences in action. Plessy, who thinks he is doing something right, ends up codifying separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. And this was not a close vote. It was 7-1. One, count them one, dissenter.

  15. Interesting! One can never predict the outcome in court.

    There are many other stains that remain on the court, needing reversal. Besides two very profound ones, there’s every case where the court ruled in favor of corporate interest at the expense of personal freedoms and civil liberties.

  16. The remarkable thing about that ruling of the SCOTUS is that they simply used judicial fiat to overthrow a Constitutional Amendment which was very clearly against the intent of the law. The SCOTUS has the right to rule on the constitutionality of laws, but it cannot unilaterally overthrow an amendment.

    My grandfather used to like chiding those from the South that it seemed that black Americans were a whole lot smarter than whites in the south, since it only took one tenth the money to educate them to an equal standard.

Comments are closed.