#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