By the 1870s, steamboats carried passengers up and down the Mississippi River, docking in the ports of major cities like New Orleans. Here, in July 1872, Captain John Benson denied Josephine Decuir née Dubuclet entry into the women’s cabin on the steamer Governor Allen explicitly because she was a woman of color, and the women’s cabin was reserved white women only. She was also not allowed to take her meal at a table until all white passengers finished first. Madame Decuir sued Captain Benson for racial discrimination, joining a legacy of women of color who used litigation in the courts to gain rights denied to them during the Reconstruction era. Madame Decuir’s lawsuit against Captain Benson was the first legal case to challenge segregation after the Civil War.
Madame Decuir spent the entirety of the American Civil War in France, living in a social environment where she was treated as equal to white women. She came from a family of Black Creoles who spoke French, enslaved others, and owned plantations. Her brother, Antoine Dubuclet, had political influence and served as the Louisiana State Treasurer after the Civil War. In 1866, when she returned home to Louisiana, Decuir boarded the main cabin of the Lafourche, but Captain Barranco denied her access, explaining that segregation was the custom on all steamships. Her prior experiences in France, pride in her family’s status, and Creole identity inspired her to affirm her right to equality. When Madame Decuir boarded the Governor Allen with her lawyers seven years later, she understood the power of them bearing witness to this practice of segregation that directly violated her rights guaranteed under the Louisiana State Constitution of 1868.
Decuir’s legal case began in the New Orleans courts and progressed to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in 1877, at the end of Reconstruction. Her lawyers argued that Article 13 of Louisiana’s 1868 State Constitution as well as an 1869 statute afforded her equal access to all modes of transportation regardless of race. Madame Decuir never attended court, but her testimony demonstrated a level of intent equal to other women of color who did. Thirty-one women of color, like Madame Decuir, challenged segregation on common carriers from 1855-1914. Decuir relied on her gender and social class to demonstrate that she was a well-respected woman and therefore deserved access to the women’s cabin. At the local courts, other steamship captains testified as witnesses on behalf of Captain Benson to affirm the practice of segregation. In response, Decuir’s case called upon Creole men of color to describe the conditions of the segregated ships. After these testimonies, the judge awarded Decuir $1,000 in damages at which point Captain Benson appealed to the State Supreme Court which upheld the local decision. As a result, Captain Benson’s lawyers requested that SCOTUS add this case to the docket.
By the time the case reached SCOTUS, the dynamics had changed. First, Captain Benson died and his widow, Eliza Jane Hall, became the administrator. As a white woman, she represented the institution of segregation that justified racial separation for the protection of white women. The court was more concerned with Decuir’s race than her gender. Additionally, R.H. Marr, a staunch white supremacist who defended the Colfax Massacre and instigated the Battle of Liberty Place, joined as co-counsel for the defense. In Hall v. Decuir (1877), the Supreme Court overturned the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling. Even though Decuir’s stint on the Governor Allen remained within the state of Louisiana, the court made a decision on intrastate affairs--because the boat traveled to other states after Decuir disembarked--fell under the jurisdiction of Congress. Therefore, Louisiana’s civil rights laws protecting Black citizens from racial segregation were nullified by federal powers.
This ruling demonstrates how SCOTUS intentionally dismantled Black citizenship rights and rolled back federal protections. Hall v. Decuir set the stage for the doctrine of separate but equal by nullifying civil rights laws against segregation. As a Creole woman of color, Decuir’s protest against racially discriminatory practices foreshadowed the arguments of the Comité des Citoyens. Years before the Comité, she fought for public rights to guarantee her dignity and status. Justice Harlan also cited the Hall v. Decuir ruling in his lone dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. Hall v. Decuir demonstrates how Black women like Decuir were a part of the legacy of defying and challenging the practice of segregation and their involvement in racial justice movements.