In 1892, Homer Plessy took a seat and made a stand all at once
On June 7, 1892, at Royal and Press streets, Homer Plessy bought a ticket in New Orleans for a Covington-bound train. As he climbed into a car reserved for white people, he braced for trouble. In fact, he was counting on it. Plessy — a Creole shoemaker of color — was arrested and, with the backing of the New Orleans-based Comite des Citoyens (Citizens Committee), ignited a case that would lead to the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation for 62 years.
The Plessy v. Ferguson case was one of the first uses of the equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment to challenge segregation. As such, it is recognized as a key moment in the civil rights struggles to come in the 20th century. In addition to having a New Orleans school named after him, a plaque at Royal and Press streets marks the spot of the train station at which Plessy was arrested. Another marks the Plessy tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
- Plessy was charged with violating the state’s controversial Separate Car Act, which mandated separate rail cars for black and white travelers. His court-ordered punishment? A $25 fine or 20 days in jail.
- Plessy and the Citizens Committee weren’t the only ones who opposed the Separate Car Act. So did the East Louisiana Railroad Co., which saw maintaining separate cars as a fiscal burden. For that reason, the committee let the railroad know in advance what they were planning and to make sure a conductor challenged him.
- Leaving nothing to chance, the committee also hired a private detective with arrest powers to take Plessy into custody, ensuring he was booked with violating the Separate Car Act — the law they hoped to test — instead of another misdemeanor.
- The “Ferguson” in the Plessy v. Ferguson case refers to John H. Ferguson, the Orleans Parish judge who convicted Plessy.
- Today, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the court case’s namesakes, operate the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, dedicated to civil rights education and outreach. “It’s no longer Plessy versus Ferguson. It’s Plessy and Ferguson,’ ” Keith Plessy said in a 2011 Washington Post article.
- Louisiana Gov. Murphy Foster, the grandfather of Gov. Mike Foster, who served from 1996 to 2004, is seen as one of the architects of the Separate Car Act.
- In 2005, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the Louisiana House of Representatives and the New Orleans City Council established June 7 as Homer Plessy Day.
- A photograph of a man commonly identified online as Homer Plessy isn’t really of him. It is former Louisiana Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback. No photos of Plessy are known to exist.
Plessy lost his Supreme Court case, with the court’s 7-1 ruling upholding “separate but equal” statutes and giving legal cover to the Jim Crow laws that would govern the majority of the 20th century. But the strategy displayed by Plessy and the Comite des Citoyens in their highly orchestrated act of civil disobedience laid the foundation for future civil rights battles to come. Sixty-two years later, Brown vs. the Board of Education would finally overturn “separate but equal,” thanks in no small part to the fight started at Royal and Press streets by Homer Plessy.