300 in Black
Celebrating the Impact of Blacks New Orleanians
Homer Adolphe Plessy was born a free person of color on March 17, 1862, in New Orleans to Joseph Adolphe Plessy and Rosa Debergue.
During the 1880s, his father passed away and his mother remarried. Suring the same period, Plessy began working as a shoemaker. New Orleans city directories from 1886 to 1924 listed his occupations as a shoemaker, laborer, clerk and insurance agent. He also became increasingly active in civic life in his community.
By 1887, Plessy had become vice-president of the Justice Protective Educational and Social Club, a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans. In 1888, Plessy, then 25 years old, was married to 19-year-old Louise Bordenave at St. Augustine Church.
At age 30, the shoemaker was one of the youngest members of the Comité des Citoyens (“Citizens’ Committee”), a civil rights group that fought vigorously for the rights of people of African descent. The Committee strongly opposed the Separate Car Act, which had been enacted in 1890 by the Louisiana legislature. The act and other disenfranchising laws like it turned the dial back on any gains made during Reconstruction.
In 1892, the Citizens’ Committee asked Plessy to agree to violate Louisiana’s Separate Car law that required the segregation of passenger trains by race. On June 7, 1892, 30-year-old Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad running between New Orleans and Covington; the seat of now suburban St. Tammany Parish. He sat in the “Whites-only” passenger car. When the conductor came to collect his ticket, Plessy refused to sit in the “Blacks-only” car. Plessy was immediately arrested by Detective Chris C. Cain at the corner of Royal and Press streets. He was put into the Orleans Parish jail, and released the next day on a $500 bond.
Plessy’s case was heard before Judge John Howard Ferguson one month after his arrest. Plessy’s lead attorney, Albion W. Tourgée, argued that Plessy’s civil rights, as granted by the 13th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, had been violated. Ferguson denied this argument and ruled that Louisiana, under state law, had the power to set rules that regulated railroad business within its borders. Plessy appealed the ruling.
Four years later, in April 1896, arguments for Plessy v. Ferguson began before the U.S. Supreme Court. Tourgée argued that the state of Louisiana had violated the 14th Amendment that stated, “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, and property without due process of law.”
On May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion in favor of the state of Louisiana, ruling that separate accommodations for Blacks and Whites were legal so long as they were equal. The ruling in the Plessy case formed the legal basis of separate public schools and other Jim Crow laws for the next 58 years. The “Separate but Equal” doctrine, enshrined by the Plessy ruling, remained valid until 1954 when it was overturned by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, and later completely outlawed by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are those who argue that the Plessy case set back civil rights, particularly across the South, for decades to come. But the reality is that segregationist laws and policies existed before Homer Plessy refused to move out of that Whites-only car on a train in New Orleans; and they would likely continue to be enacted and enforced by law, custom and terror tactics with or without the Plessy case until they were successfully challenged. As such, the true impact of Plessy v. Ferguson was that its ruling actually provided a clear-cut target for NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall when he challenged the system of separate public schools, which like other Jim Crow laws, had been reinforced using the fundamentally flawed doctrine established by the Court in its ruling on the Plessy case.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Plessy faded back into relative anonymity. He fathered three children, continued to participate in the religious and social life of his community, and later sold and collected insurance premiums for the People’s Life Insurance Company. Plessy died in 1925 at the age of 62 and was buried in the Debergue-Blanco family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1. But his and other members of the Citizens’ Committee’s efforts have not gone unrecognized.
In 2009, descendants of both Homer Plessy and John Ferguson came together to form the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, with the mission to teach the history of the Plessy v. Ferguson case and why it is still relevant today through education, preservation and outreach efforts. On Feb. 12, 2009, the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation honored the successes of the civil rights movement by placing of a historical marker at the corner of Press and Royal streets, the site of Homer Plessy’s arrest in New Orleans in 1892. And each year on June 7, New Orleans celebrates “Plessy Day”, with the most recent observance on June 7, 2017, marking the milestone 125th anniversary of Homer Plessy’s act of civil disobedience and his ensuing arrest.