Born in New Orleans in 1849, Rodolphe Desdunes actively participated in the city’s Creole social and political scene, eventually co-founding the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens’ Committee) in 1891. As the son of Pierre Feremie Desdunes, of Haitian ancestry, and his Cuban mother Henriette, Desdunes lived as a free person of color. Their family made a living growing tobacco and making cigars. Desdunes turned to education and studied law at Straight University, a historically Black college, and taught at The Institut Catholique, educating African American orphans. Between 1879 and 1912, he intermittently worked at the United States Customs House at 423 Canal Street as a messenger and clerk. In addition, Desdunes served as a member of the state militia and fought at the three-day Battle of Liberty Place against the White League, made of five thousand paramilitary ex-Confederate soldiers from the Democratic Party. The White League overpowered the state militia and local police force and overran the State Capital in New Orleans to protest the 1872 governor’s election results. This was just one of the many incidents of racial violence that characterized the Reconstruction era in Louisiana.
Like many Black Americans of the time, Desdunes’s radical politics found a home in the Republican Party. Between jobs at the Customs House, Desdunes penned the political ideas of Black Creoles like himself. He wrote for two local Black newspapers, The Louisianian and The Crusader, and composed many articles meditating on ideas about public rights and equality, and called for civil rights for Black Americans and Black Creoles. At The Crusader, Desdunes, working closely with other Creoles of color such as Louis Martinet and Aristide Mary, and helped form the Comité that opposed racial separation and devised a legal strategy to challenge the Separate Car Act of 1890, which legally segregated passenger rail cars in Louisiana. In The Crusader, Desdunes explained the humiliating impact of the SCA: “Among the many schemes devised by Southern statement to divide the races, none is so audacious and insulting as the one which provides separate cars for black and white people on the railways running through the State. It is like a slap in the face of every member of the black race, whether he has the full measure or only one-eight of that blood,” he wrote in 1891.
The Comité concocted a plan with Rodolphe Desdunes’s eldest son Daniel to contest the law. In February of 1892, Daniel boarded a white rail car at the Pontchartrain Railroad Depot at the corner of Elysian Fields and Decatur Street, headed for Mobile, Alabama. Desdunes’s civil disobedience caused an immediate stir, and the train was stopped at the Louisville-Nashville line split just north of Claiborne Avenue on Elysian Fields, where Lowe’s Home Improvement is currently located. Daniel was removed from the train and arrested, which allowed the Comité to challenge the Separate Car Act (SCA) of 1890 in court. Local Judge John Ferguson acquitted Daniel Desdunes, ruling that the Separate Car Act could not be enforced since the train he boarded traveled into other states. The SCA only had jurisdiction over travel within Louisiana. Learning from this mistake, the train Homer Plessy boarded a few months later traveled within the state of Louisiana, thus setting the stage to challenge the Separate Car Act. Plessy v. Ferguson put the radical politics of Desdunes and his colleagues on the Comité into action, launching a national fight for civil rights in the 1890s.