#OnThisDay: Plessy v Ferguson, 1896

I had originally considered writing about the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens today, but then I was reminded that it was on this day in 1896 that the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that changed the course of American history. The case was Plessy v. Ferguson.

Plessy v. Ferguson was one of the cases we studied in the constitutional law class I took in college. The decision in this landmark case sanctioned segregation in the United States.

What happened after the American Civil War?

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United State Constitution were intended to guarantee the civil rights of African Americans in the years after the Civil War and forevermore. Some states found ways around the intent of those amendments by instituting such things as a poll tax that many former slaves could not afford to pay and literacy tests that former slaves who had been denied an opportunity to learn to read or write couldn’t possibly pass.

The result of the poll taxes and literacy tests was the disenfranchisement of black men. (This just applied to men because women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1920.)

Racially-segregated public schools were the legal norm in some states in the post-Civil War years and into the 1960s. Narrow interpretation of the U.S. Constitution made these state laws possible.

The Louisiana Separate Car Act

The Separate Car Act took effect in Louisiana in 1890. It dictated that railway companies had to provide separate cars for blacks and whites and made it against the law for anyone of either race to enter a car designated for the other race.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Creole professionals in New Orleans organized the Citizens’ Committee to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act. They hired Albion Tourgée as legal counsel. Mr. Tourgée had a record as a reformer. They wanted to find a person of mixed race to serve as plaintiff in a test case. They maintained that the act could not be applied on a consistent basis because it did not define the “white” and “colored” races.

Who was Plessy in Plessy v Ferguson?

Homer Adolph Plessy was seven-eighths white and one-eighth African American. He bought a ticket to take the East Louisiana Railroad from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. He boarded a passenger car for whites. When he refused to move to a car for African Americans, he was arrested.

Mr. Plessy was found guilty and appealed the decision.

Who was Ferguson in Plessy v Ferguson?

John H. Ferguson was the judge when Mr. Plessy was tried in U.S. District Court.

Counsel for Mr. Plessy argued that the Louisiana Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the amendment that prohibited slavery.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states the following in section 1: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of laws; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Counsel for Mr. Plessy argued that the Act violated this amendment because it did not provide African Americans “equal protection of the laws.” Judge Ferguson dismissed that claim, too.

The case was appealed to the Louisiana State Supreme Court where Judge Ferguson’s ruling was upheld.

Plessy v Ferguson

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider the case, which was titled Plessy v Ferguson and oral arguments were heard April 13, 1896. The court’s 7 to 1 decision with one associate justice not voting, was rendered 124 years ago today on May 18, 1896.

U.S. Supreme Court Building
Photo by Bill Mason on Unsplash

The majority opinion in the case

Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote for the majority. He wrote that the Louisiana Separate Car Act didn’t violate the Thirteenth Amendment because it did not reestablish slavery or servitude. He wrote that the act wasn’t in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment because the amendment only addressed the legal equality of whites and blacks and did not address social equality. Justice Brown maintained that the law in question in Louisiana provided equal cars for the two races. He backed up his statement for the court’s majority by citing various states’ courts that allowed for racially-segregated public schools. He wrote: “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” Furthermore, he wrote that the intention of the Louisiana law in question was to preserve “public peace and good order” and was “reasonable.”

The minority opinion in the case

Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, as the only dissenter, wrote in the minority statement that the majority of the Supreme Court had ignored the purpose of the Separate Car Act. To Justice Harlan, it was obvious that the purpose of the act was “under the guise of giving equal accommodation for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while traveling in railroad passenger coaches.” He argued that “Our Constitution is color-blind” and does not see or tolerate citizens being divided by class. He said the act affected the free movement of both races and, therefore, violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Stating his dissent to the decision in the strongest possible terms, Justice Harlan wrote, “in my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.” (In the Dred Scott case in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote that African Americans were not entitled to the rights guaranteed by U.S. citizenship.)

By the way, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan came to be called “The Great Dissenter” because in the 34 years he sat on the U.S. Supreme Court (1877 until his death in 1911) he was often the dissenting voice, particularly in cases involving civil rights.

The separate but equal doctrine

Although the words, “separate but equal” do not appear in the majority or minority opinions in Plessy v Ferguson, that doctrine was a result of the case. The “separate but equal” doctrine made possible the continuation of racially-segregated public schools for decades.

The Brown v Board of Education of Topeka landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1954 ruled that separate but equal public schools were unconstitutional; however, in the county in which I lived in North Carolina, voluntary school integration was not instituted until 1965, and integration wasn’t mandatory until the following school year. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka essentially overturned Plessy v Ferguson.

Since my last blog post

I’ve continued to work on a short story around the May 20, 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

Until my next blog post

Be safe. Be well. Be positive. Be creative and productive.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.

Let’s continue the conversation

I attended an all-white school until the seventh grade. That year, integration was optional. Only three black students attended the school of first through eighth grades. The year I was in the eighth grade, the public schools in our county were fully-integrated. Looking back on it now, I don’t know what all the fuss was about.

How about you? Did you attend a racially-segregated school? Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below and on my Facebook pages where I post my blog.

Thanks for dropping by!


13 thoughts on “#OnThisDay: Plessy v Ferguson, 1896

  1. Janet, you have performed a valuable service here, I think. Most people don’t realize the laws we had in this country following the Civil War that kept Black families back. Many had begun to prosper in the decade immediately following the war and “Dred Scott“ took away, among other things, the ability to own capital for a black man, and metaphorically tied their hands, keeping them poor and beholden.

    I grew up in the 50s and 60s as you did. But I’m a northerner. I lived in New Jersey, just outside Newark, against the back drop of the civil rights movement, which led me to the mistaken conclusion that racial trouble was confined to the south. No one was marching in my neighborhood.

    My Black classmates came from intact, middle class families. Many of my black friends made better grades than I did. And all of them were just downright nice. I’ve long felt I was very lucky to have grown up where and when I did. I’m so appreciative of your post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting history Janet. Thank you for bringing this very important case to the public memory again. You have much insight and knowledge of history and it is very good of you to share and to teach because I am sure that many never had an idea of this Supreme Court Case. All the best to you,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Francisco. I came to the realization last week that I need to write more history-related blog posts in order to establish myself as a bit of a historian if I want readers to value my historical fiction. Over the weekend I completely reworked my editorial calendar for my blog for the remainder of 2020 and much of 2021. I’m excited about this plan and I feel like my blog has more focus than it had before. I enjoyed doing the research to refresh my memory about the details of the Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court case. I look forward to researching and writing similar blog posts! I’m pleased that you found today’s post interesting. Enjoy your week. We’re promised rain all week. 😕

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think you’ve really a smashing idea and I think it will work just lovely. I am so sorry to hear about the rain. Today we started Phase 1 and the weather has turned absolutely beautiful! Take good care Janet and I do look forward to your new historical posts, they are certainly quite interesting indeed.
    All the best,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for your comments about my blog post today, Janet. Doing the research was a sobering experience as it brought back so many memories.

    Like you, I’m glad I grew up when and where I did. We in The South were made to believe that racial discrimination only happened in The South. It wasn’t until riots happened in northern cities and Los Angeles that our eyes were opened to the ugly truth that discrimination existed (and still exists) throughout our country. It wasn’t until Boston had violence in trying to fully integrate the schools there and students from Charlotte, NC went there to share their experiences and try to calm the situation that we realized all public schools in The North were not racially- integrated.

    Many people from NY, MI, and other northern States have moved to our area over the years and it has been eye opening and very sad to find that many of them are as prejudiced as any people I’ve ever known.

    I very much appreciate the thoughts and experiences you shared. I plan to do more blog posts like this one.


  6. Thank you, Francisco! I’m excited about my new plan. I’ve had good response already to today’s post.

    Enjoy your beautiful weather and Phase 1. North Carolina might enter Phase 2 this weekend, but I don’t plan to do anything or go anywhere I haven’t already done or been. It’s just too risky for my sister or me to get sick.me

    Enjoy the sunshine! We’re predicted to get 3 to 6 inches of rain over the next several days. 😣

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, all that rain! I hope your weather gets better very soon Janet…today we visited friends and stopped at our favourite bar…which has been closed for almost 50 days…and Gad a great time… I think the plans for your blog will definitely produce great results Janet, wish you all the best,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. After 50 days, I know y’all enjoyed getting back to your favorite bar — and visiting friends.It’s hard to even visualize visiting friends again. I’m happy for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you Janet, yes, it was quite a lovely evening…and to think this is what we used to do most days before 14 MAR…have a lovely day Janet, all the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I grew up in a lily white, working class neighborhood near Akron, Ohio, Yet for some unexplainable reason, I began to idolize African American sports heroes of the Cleveland Browns. I also became exposed to them by listening to my mother’s record collection – Nat King vole, Ray Charles…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Janet, Happy Holiday. Thank you for the bit of history about a case I was unawre of. I attended a 3,900 student high school in Chicago. The year I graduated it was cited as the best high school in the country (Not that my attending it contributed to that honor in any way.) There was one black student because the school was on Chicago’s north side where white people lived, and black people lived on the west side or south side. The most contact with black people I had were the athletes I ran against while I was on the track team. running the 800 meters.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you, David. I hope you’ve had a good day. I’m glad you found my blog post interesting and that it was something new for you. It’s my hope that many of my blog readers will learn new bits of US history by reading my “OnThisDay blog posts. In fact, I’m planning to put more emphasis on this type of post to establish in my readers’ minds that I am enough of an authority on history that they can trust the historical fiction I write. Not that I’m an authority on anything, but I try my best to stay true to history in all my writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

    That’s an interesting school experience you had. Much different from mine. I’m glad I came along when and where I did, for it molded me into the person I am and I believe it will influence my writing.


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