The Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case is well-known in United States history. As the Supreme Court case that established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” it ushered in the Jim Crow era of legal racial segregation and discrimination. By the mid-twentieth century, civil rights activists began to dismantle Jim Crow rule. Most notably, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned Plessy and ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional, opening the doors for activists to challenge race-based discrimination in the civil rights movement.
Fewer understand that Plessy v. Ferguson is a New Orleans story. The radical crusaders who fought for racial justice in the nineteenth century are often left out of America’s civil rights narrative or, when included, are misunderstood. For example, an image of P.B.S. Pinchback, the first Black governor, is often confused for Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the landmark case. Artist Ian Wilkerson attempts to clear the confusion in a mural that features both Pinchback and a rendering of Plessy. From the Plessy v. Ferguson historical marker at 700 Homer Plessy Way, the mural is a short walk across the railroad tracks on Royal Street, directly across from Studio Be.
The Plessy case came after a period of many political and social gains for Black Americans following the Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and the 14th and 15th Amendments promised formerly enslaved people equal rights and the right to vote. As a result, Black men became politicians, primarily in the Republican party, and helped shape the laws of a country re-establishing itself during the period known as Reconstruction. Particularly in Louisiana, men of color elected to the state legislature wrote the most radical state constitution in 1868, protecting equal rights for all regardless of race. As such, people of color in Louisiana could vote and utilize integrated public facilities.
In New Orleans, Black Creoles had enjoyed relative privilege for generations. Their multi-ethnic backgrounds included European, African, Caribbean, and Native American descent, and placed them in a unique racial category. Many were never enslaved and some could pass as white, opening opportunities for acquiring wealth and certain privileges. Those with French ancestry held close ties with the culture, and many spoke the language, spent time in France, and were educated in French schools. Therefore, French principles of equality and democracy shaped Black Creoles' ideas that public rights should protect human dignity, which included integration.
However, the rights that Black Americans and Creoles fought for and sought to maintain soon came under attack. At this period in history, the Democratic Party was devoted to white supremacy. Democrats and white supremacists used violence to intimidate African Americans from exercising their political voice in bloody events such as the Mechanic’s Institute Massacre, the Colfax Massacre, and the Battle of Liberty Place. Racial terror through lynchings steadily increased during Reconstruction, peaking in the 1890s. In addition, a slew of Supreme Court decisions handed down in the 1870s and 1880s limited the power of the federal government to protect Black citizenship rights. By 1877, Reconstruction ended throughout the South, and federal troops left, stripping Black Americans of yet another layer of federal protection.
Despite such setbacks, the Creoles of color in New Orleans who had exercised freedoms and privileges for decades did not tolerate these infringements on their rights, particularly after the passage of the Separate Car Act (SCA). Passed by the Louisiana state legislature in 1890, the SCA called for separate cars for white and Black passengers traveling by railroad in order “to promote the comfort of passengers on railway trains.” This indignity drove Black Creoles to form the Comité des Citoyens (Citizen’s Committee) and mount a legal challenge to racially discriminatory laws. Through Plessy v. Ferguson, they protested racial discrimination in the American legal landscape before the highest court of the land--the Supreme Court of the United States.
Civil rights activism has deep roots in New Orleans. The Plessy v. Ferguson tour that follows highlights the stories of people and places who were instrumental in challenging the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act.