Best known as the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark court case challenging segregation, Homer Plessy’s one act of civil disobedience helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century. A racially mixed shoemaker, he challenged Louisiana segregation legislation by refusing to move from a whites-only train car in 1892. He did this on behalf of a New Orleans civil rights organization called the Citizens Committee, which had chosen him because he could pass for a white man.
Like many of the gens de couleur — the class consisting of free Creole people of color in Louisiana — Plessy could easily have passed for white, history says. Born in New Orleans on March 17, 1863, to a family of mixed racial heritage, he described himself as “seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood” since his great-grandmother was from Africa.
Plessy’s father died when he was six, and his mother married Victor M. Dupart, a shoemaker and political activist. Growing up, Plessy decided to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps by learning the shoemaking trade. And seeing his father’s activities as a member of a Unification Movement, a civil rights organization that sought an end to discrimination, Plessy also ventured into social activism. By 1887, he was serving as vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club to reform New Orleans’ public education system.
Before the 1880s, White and Black people mixed relatively freely in New Orleans, which had a large population of former slaves and “free people of color”. Black people could marry anyone they wanted, attend the same schools as Whites and sit in any streetcar. But by the 1880s, many new segregationist laws were introduced throughout the post-Reconstruction South, including the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, as stated by The New York Times.
State legislatures passed laws requiring railroads to provide separate cars for “Negro” or “colored” passengers. Plessy decided to challenge these laws on behalf of the Citizens Committee, hoping to get the attention of the Supreme Court.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a ticket on a train from New Orleans bound for Covington, Louisiana, and sat in the “whites only” section, expecting to be forced off the train or arrested or both. Soon, a conductor asked him if he was “colored.” Plessy said he was.
“Then you will have to retire to the colored car,” the conductor ordered. But Plessy refused. Not too long after, a private detective, with the help of some passengers, dragged Plessy off the train, arrested him and charged him with violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act. Plessy was jailed overnight and his group posted his bail.
Four months later when his case was heard in criminal court, Judge John Howard Ferguson chose not to hold a trial. Instead, he upheld the constitutionality of the Louisiana Separate Car Act, “which enabled Plessy’s legal team to appeal the decision and keep Plessy out of jail,” according to The New York Times. Plessy’s lawyers appealed the ruling before the Louisiana Supreme Court, where they argued that the Separate Car Act violated the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law.
However, the higher court upheld Judge Ferguson’s decision. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court followed. On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the Separate Car Act. It ruled that racially segregated public facilities were legal, so long as the facilities for Black people and Whites were equal.
According to HISTORY, “In declaring separate-but-equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads, the Court ruled that the protections of 14th Amendment applied only to political and civil rights (like voting and jury service), not “social rights” (sitting in the railroad car of your choice).”
The ruling solidified the establishment of the Jim Crow era, leading to segregation in trains, buses, schools and other public facilities. This continued over the next 58 years until the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, unanimously dismissed the “separate but equal” doctrine when it ruled in 1954 that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
Plessy’s case and arguments from it were used in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Though he wasn’t alive in 1954, he had received justice.
In 1869 when the Supreme Court decided his case, Plessy reported to Ferguson’s court to answer the charge of violating the Separate Car Act. He changed his plea to guilty and paid the $25 fine. He went back to family life. He lived quietly in New Orleans with his wife, working as a laborer, warehouseman, and clerk. In 1910 he became a collector for a Black-owned insurance company before he passed away on March 1, 1925, at the age of 61.
In spite of his legal defeat, his train-car protest, which was years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a White passenger in Montgomery, had a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement. His actions helped inspire the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Today, the establishment of “Homer A. Plessy Day” in New Orleans recognizes his legacy. There is also a park named in his honor.
Amazingly, relatives of Plessy and Ferguson have united to create The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation to not only preserve Plessy’s legacy but also provide “civil rights education, preservation and outreach.”