Plessy v. Ferguson: Separate but Equal 1896
Homer Plessy (1863–1925), Henry Billings Brown (1836–1913),
John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911)
The historic 1896 United States Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson established the validity of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” theory. The lawsuit came from an event in which Homer Plessy, an African American railway passenger, refused to seat in a car reserved for Black people in 1892.
The Supreme Court rejected Plessy’s claim that his constitutional rights had been infringed, ruling that a legislation that “implies only a juridical distinction” between white and black persons is not unconstitutional. As a result, Jim Crow laws and segregated public accommodations for people of different races were popular.
Plessy v. Ferguson: Background and Context
Following the removal of federal soldiers from the South as a result of the 1877 Compromise, Democrats secured control of state legislatures across the area, essentially ending Reconstruction.
As white supremacy reasserted itself across the South, the promise of equality under the law expressed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution faded swiftly, resulting in a return to disenfranchisement and other disadvantages.
White and Black Southerners interacted quite easily until the 1880s, when state legislatures approved the first legislation mandating railways to provide separate carriages for “Negro” or “colored” passengers, as historian C. Vann Woodward pointed out in a 1964 essay about Plessy v. Ferguson.
In 1887, Florida became the first state to require segregated train carriages, and by the end of the century, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, and other states had followed suit.
Black Resistance to Segregation
As the start of the Jim Crow period was observed with horror by Southern Black people, members of the Black community in New Orleans determined to form a resistance. A legislation established in Louisiana in 1890 “allowing for separate railway cars for the white and colored races” was at the core of the dispute that became Plessy v. Ferguson. It required all passenger trains to furnish these separate carriages, which had to be equivalent in terms of amenities.
Homer Adolph Plessy, the plaintiff in the case to determine whether the statute was constitutional, was of mixed race, describing himself as “seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood.” Plessy bought a ticket on a train from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana, on June 7, 1892, and sat in an empty seat in a whites-only compartment. He was detained and incarcerated after refusing to exit the car at the conductor’s request.
After being found guilty of breaking the 1890 legislation by a New Orleans court, Plessy filed a petition against the presiding judge, Hon. John H. Ferguson, alleging that the law violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954);
The Civil Rights Act of 1964;
The Voting Rights Act (1965);
Interracial Marriage (1967).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)