Law students–and, one hopes, high school history students–all learn about the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. It established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” a doctrine that ensured that Black folks could continue to be separated and definitely not equal, a situation that would be legally sanctioned until the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
A quick summary: In 1892, a White-appearing African American resident of New Orleans named Homer Plessy bought a ticket on a train; he boarded the Whites-only car, then identified himself as Black and refused to sit in the car designated for Black people. He was arrested, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court, which rejected Plessy’s argument that his constitutional rights had been violated.
The Court ruled that a law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between White people and Black people wasn’t unconstitutional. As a direct result of that ruling, restrictive Jim Crow legislation and separate public accommodations based on race became commonplace.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Plessy was overruled; the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision held that separate was inherently unequal. The decision prompted an enormous backlash among White Americans, especially in the South, where hundreds of private schools (segregation academies) drained White children out of public school systems.
Ever since Brown, Americans have been engaged in a culture war over efforts to actually live up to the promise of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. I document many of the contemporary battles of that culture war in this blog. Although progress has been painfully slow–and although sometimes, as with the travesty that was the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, we seem to be regressing– we really have made headway.
One sign of that progress was the news last weekend that Louisiana officials have voted to pardon Homer Plessy–a mere 125 years after his loss in the Supreme Court.
Now, 125 years after the shameful decision that codified the Jim Crow-era “separate but equal” fiction, the namesake of that famous case, Homer Plessy, may be pardoned. The Louisiana Board of Pardons unanimously approved a pardon Friday, according to the Associated Press, sending it to Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for final approval.
Another–and positively heartwarming–sign of progress is the fact that descendants of Homer Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, the Judge who ruled against Homer Plessy at the trial court level, have come together to establish a foundation they have named the Plessy AND Ferguson Foundation.
From that foundation’s website:
After meeting through mutual friend and We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson author Keith Weldon Medley, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson began a partnership that eventually blossomed into the Plessy & Ferguson foundation. Together, they visit schools, festivals, and academic or historical institutions, spreading their message that their mutual history can be a tool to create unity and understanding. By coming together as Plessy and Ferguson, they have seized the opportunity to pick up the torch, keeping history alive, and sharing their vision for true democracy in the 21st century.
CBS Saturday ran an interview with Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson last Saturday, and it’s worth watching. They tell the story of how, after Medley introduced them in 2004, they decided to form the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation, and how they have subsequently worked to have five historical markers honoring Homer Plessy added to the New Orleans landscape.
But as the Washington Post article linked to above notes, and historians have documented, those markers and that recognition don’t — and can’t — include a historical marker at Plessy’s old address on Claiborne Avenue. His home was demolished in 1968 as part of an urban renewal project that uprooted a Black community to make way for Interstate 10–one example among many of the deliberate siting of interstate highways that destroyed Black neighborhoods or separated Black residential areas from White ones in numerous cities around the country, very much including Indianapolis.
That’s another piece of our history that needs repairing…