Last week, 130 years after Homer Plessy was ejected from a whites-only train and triggered the “separate but equal” Supreme Court ruling that enshrined him in history, he was finally pardoned. Down across the years the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 symbolized segregation and stood as law until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. But who was Homer Plessy and what happened to him after the historic moment of injustice?
What year he was born and his name and pedigree is a jumble of information. Was he born Homer Adolph Plessy or Homere Patris Plessy in 1862 or 1863? No matter the confusion, he was clearly born a free person of color in a Creole-speaking family. His father, Joseph Adolphe Plessy, was a carpenter and his mother, Rosa Deberegue, was a seamstress. Coming of age during the Reconstruction-era in Louisiana, he attended integrated schools in a society where Black men had the franchise and interracial marriage was legal.
But with the end of Reconstruction, particularly the Hayes-Tilden Electoral College vote and the compromise that brought about the removal of federal troops from the South, many of the privileges enjoyed by Plessy and others no longer existed. Meanwhile, Plessy, like his stepfather, became a shoemaker and was employed at Brito’s shoe-making company in New Orleans. By the 1880s, Plessy joined a number of activists in the fight to restore their civil rights. In 1887, he served as vice president of the 50 person Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, a group dedicated to reforming public education. And in 1892 he was a member of Comite des Citoyens that committed acts of civil disobedience to challenge the state’s Separate Car Act and the separate accommodations for Blacks and whites on trains. On June 7, 1892, he purchased a ticket for the “whites only” first-class section of the train and was soon arrested by a private detective
hired by the group.
In a state criminal district court, Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled against Plessy, and thereby upheld the law on the ground that the state had the right to regulate railroads within its borders. Plessy immediately appealed the decision, taking his case to the Supreme Court, which heard the case for four years in 1896, ruling 7-to-1 in favor of Louisiana. In effect, the legal basis of Jim Crow was sanctioned and would be in place until Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954.
As for Plessy after his role in the historic decision, he returned to his profession as a shoemaker, but in the advent of major shoemaking companies his services suffered, forcing him to find a new occupation. Among the menial jobs he took was one as a laborer in a warehouse, then as a clerk, and ultimately as insurance salesman for the People’s Insurance Company. Other than his activism and having his case go before the Supreme Court, his life was not exceptional.
Before his pardoning, other efforts had been made to mark his place in history, including the creation of the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation of New Orleans that honored him in 2009 with the placing of a historical marker at the site of his arrest in 1892. He died on March 1, 1925 in Metairie, Louisiana and is buried in New Orleans. His wife, Louise, died the same year. They had three children.
We offer here the lone dissent to Justice Henry Billings Brown’s majority decision by Justice John Marshall Harlan: “I am of the opinion that the state 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. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several states of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery, as an institution tolerated by law, would, it is true, have disappeared from our country; but there would remain a power in the states, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of freedom, to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race, and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community, called the ‘People of the United States,’ for whom, and by whom through representatives, our government is administered. Such a system is inconsistent with the guaranty given by the constitution to each state of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by congressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding. For the reason stated, I am constrained to withhold my assent from the opinion and judgment of the majority.”