the American history courses I took in high school differed from others in the emphasis placed on the experience of blacks and other people of color (the section covering the 20th century that I opted for was titled “African American Experience,” whereas the option most of school took was titled “American Experience”). however, while we spent quite a bit of time discussing various pieces of landmark legislation pertaining to social justice and racial equality, I was surprised to (re)discover Plessy’s link to New Orleans while exploring the exhibits of the Cabildo.
Homer Plessy was born to French-speaking Creole parents just before the outbreak of the Civil War and just after General Benjamin Butler’s troops occupied the city and liberated enslaved African Americans. his paternal grandfather, a white Frenchman from Bordeaux, arrived in New Orleans after leaving Haiti in the wake the rebellion that liberated the nation from Napoleon’s France. after his father’s death in 1869, his mother married a clerk at the U.S. Post Office who supplemented his income as a shoemaker. Plessy followed his stepfather into the shoe business, and also worked as a clerk and insurance agent, according to city records.
during the period of occupation and Reconstruction in which Plessy grew up, blacks in the city enjoyed a degree of freedom unheard of in the rest of the South – marrying freely and attending integrated schools (briefly), among other rights. in 1873, his stepfather signed on to the Unification Movement which sought to establish equality in Louisiana (which had a more laissez-faire attitude about racial segregation from its early years as something of a remote backwater up until it became a state and its liberality conflicted with laws of neighboring states.) once federal troops withdrew from the city by the order of President Hayes in 1877, however, rights hitherto enjoyed by most and any prospect for a racially egalitarian society vanished.
from a young age, Plessy displayed political and social conscious; he served as a leader in an education reform movement and, ultimately, joined a mixed-race civil rights group called the Comite de Cityones. not unlike the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Comite orchestrated the events that culminated in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case. as with the Montgomery boycott some six decades later, Plessy’s appearance contributed to the plan — as one scholar noted, he was white enough to gain access to the location where he was black enough to get arrested. on June 7, 1892, he bought a first-class ticket on train between New Orleans and Covington and took a seat in the “whites-only” car. when asked for his ticket Plessy stated that, as a person 7/8 white, he did not want to sit in the “blacks-only” car. he was arrested immediately, held overnight on $500 bond and tried a month later for the offense.
the trial – before Judge John Howard Ferguson – took place in one of the second floor rooms of the Cabildo and Plessy’s case rested on the argument that the law that resulted in his arrest violated his rights under the recently-passed Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Ferguson disagreed based on the contention that the state could set rules for railroad business that took place within its borders. the State Supreme Court upheld Ferguson’s ruling and refused to rehear the case but allowed for a petition for writ of error, which allowed the case to progress to the United States Supreme Court.
in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court heard and ruled on the case, the majority opinion laying out the doctrine of “separate but equal” that permitted states to segregate with federal permission until struck down by the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. (one Justice – John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky – dissented on the grounds that the Louisiana law was inconsistent with the liberty citizens and was hostile to both the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution. his position on this and other cases dealing with racial segregation earned him the nickname “the Great Dissenter.”)
following the Court’s decision, Plessy pleaded guilty and paid the levied fine in January of 1897. he returned to his life – became a father, remained active in his church and community, sold insurance — and died at in 1925. he was interred in his family’s tomb at the St. Louis Cemetery #1; our group vied with three or four others to see the site and to discuss his importance to the city and American history. it wasn’t a long discussion, more a kind of shorthand — you all have heard of Plessy, right? this one is his family tomb. I’ve learned more about his life in writing this post, but seeing the family tomb and site of the trial spurred me into researching his life.