#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!

Janet

A Wake-Up Call from Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Find Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on PBS

I’ve enjoyed the various television series Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has done on PBS (the Public Broadcasting System in the United States.) With my interest in genealogy, I’ve especially enjoyed his “Finding Your Roots” series where he (and his assistants) do a thorough genealogical search for well-known Americans. Many times, the findings are surprising.

In my blog post last Monday, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/06/03/4-or-5-books-i-read-in-may-2019/ , I wrote about the books I read in May. I mentioned reading the first two chapters of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s new book, Stony the Road:   Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.

Stony the Road:   Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The events and facts Dr. Gates included in his book were not in the history textbooks of my youth. This period in our nation’s history was omitted from our textbooks, as were the dark decades which followed in which “Jim Crow” laws were enacted and strictly enforced. All this was swept under the rug and not talked about. The precious little I was taught about the Reconstruction Era could be summed up as, “After the Civil War the ‘carpetbaggers’ from “up North” came down here to tell us what to do.” This always had negative connotations. I grew up in North Carolina.

As a lover of history, even at a young age, I lamented the fact that every year in school we’d study the years up to the end of the American Civil War, the school year would end, and the same thing would happen the next year. It always came across as a lack of time to study anything that happened after that war but, with the perspective I’ve gained in the last several years, I now wonder if this was part of a grand design by the State of North Carolina. Perhaps it was by intention that we never studied the Reconstruction Era.

A snapshot of my school years

So you’ll know the background from which I speak, here are the highlights of my school years as far as race goes: I attended an all-white public school through the sixth grade; racial desegregation was optional in 1965 when I was in the seventh grade (meaning there were three children from a black family who desegregated our school of grades 1-12 with around 1,000 students); the historic black public schools in our county were closed at the end of my seventh grade year, so the schools were completely racially-integrated thereafter.

Can you imagine being one of just three students of color in a school of 1,000 white students? I cannot imagine how Carolyn Morris and her two siblings felt. I also cannot imagine how all the black students in our county felt the following year when their schools were closed and they had no choice but to attend the schools that had preciously been all-white. It was a blessing that five of the six county high schools were consolidated in 1967 into two new high schools, so Central Cabarrus High School and Northwest Cabarrus High School were never racially-segregated.

Back to Dr. Gates’ book

From Dr. Gates’ book I learned in greater detail than I had before that great strides were made for racial integration during Reconstruction; however, “Jim Crow” laws started popping up all over the country (yes, even in The North) to squelch that progress. One fact that epitomizes the century after the American Civil War is that the University of South Carolina was racially-integrated after the War, but then laws were instituted to prohibit black students. The university wasn’t desegregated again until 1963.

The most important thing I learned as a writer

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The most important thing I learned as a writer from reading Dr. Gates’ book is about the use of “Plantation Dialect” in fiction. It is something I have wrestled with in the years I’ve written and re-written my manuscript for The Spanish Coin/The Doubloon. With every revision I’ve deleted words of dialect. I had it down to just a couple of words (nawsuh for No, sir; Yessum for Yes, ma’am) by the time I read Dr. Gates’ book. Now I realize how that use of dialect, no doubt, comes across to an African-American reader.

As a white Southerner, I don’t like it when someone mocks my accent. I’m proud of my accent, but to see it overdone in spoken or written word is demeaning.

I’m fascinated by the regional accents in the United States. It’s a subject I’d like to study. I think these regional accents are a beautiful warp and weft in the fabric of our nation. If we all spoke just alike, life would be boring.

In next Monday’s blog post, I plan to delve more deeply into this subject as Dr. Gates’ book prompted me to do additional research about the use of dialect and accents in fiction. Learning to write fiction is a journey.

Since my last blog post

For a variety of reasons, I’ve made only scant progress on my manuscript for The Doubloon; however, what I’ve learned about the use of accent and dialect in fiction is far more important than my novel’s word count.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Things We Cannot Say, by Kelly Rimmer and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

Let’s continue the conversation

What is your experience in writing or reading fiction in which dialect and accent were overdone? Have you noticed an evolution in how dialect and accent are handled in novels?

Janet