Stop 7 of 7 in the Plessy v. Ferguson: The Fight for Civil Rights in New Orleans tour
In the immediate aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson, the case itself received relatively little attention. Homer Plessy paid the twenty-five dollar fine for violating the Separate Car Act and went to work as a laborer. Before the ruling, segregation was less formal in the public sphere, primarily felt in education. However, Plessy soon cemented segregation throughout United States society. This new legal regime, dubbed “Jim Crow,” entrenched racial segregation in public spaces such as transportation services, hotels, water fountains, parks, and restrooms, justified under the “separate but equal” doctrine of the case.
Following Plessy, racial discrimination played out in other facets of society in Louisiana as well. For example, the 1898 Louisiana Constitution disenfranchised thousands of Black voters through poll taxes and literacy tests. The increase in lynchings also continued to terrorize African Americans during the 1890s and into the twentieth century. Racial tensions erupted in New Orleans during the Robert Charles Race Massacre of 1900, in which white New Orleanians attacked Black citizens at random in their manhunt for Charles, a Black man accused of shooting local white police officers. Therefore, the U.S. entered a new century dedicated to maintaining white supremacy through violence, disenfranchisement, and segregation.
By the election of 1912, formal legal segregation had become law in the South. President Woodrow Wilson solidified this legal trend nationally and segregated the federal government via executive order. However, new resistance movements in the spirit of protest emerged in response. The Niagara Movement which later merged into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), continued the legacy of the Comité by fighting for Black civil rights through legal channels. In 1954, Thurgood Marshall, the head of the NAACP’S Legal Defense Fund, successfully defeated the doctrine of separate but equal in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court ruled the segregation of public schools as unconstitutional, reversing the judicial decision in Plessy and paving the way to challenge formal legal segregation and discrimination in other public facilities.
The legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson continues to hold significance in the twenty-first century. In September of 2004, two descendants of John Ferguson and Homer Plessy met at the book signing hosted at the Preservation Resource Center for We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson, a detailed history of the people and events that led up to the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The author, Keith Weldon Medley, introduced Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, who soon formed a friendship and partnership around their shared history. Five years later on February 12, 2009, Keith and Phoebe joined the Crescent City Peace Alliance and NOCCA to unveil the Plessy v. Ferguson historical marker on the site of Plessy’s arrest in 1892 at the corner of Press and Royal Streets. On July 9, 2009, at Cafe Reconcile on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., Keith and Phoebe formally incorporated the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation dedicated to educating students and the public about the complex history, surprising details, and civil rights activism of the case. In 2018, Press Street was renamed Homer Plessy Way in his honor. The Homer A. Plessy Community School, a K-8 school for New Orleans children, is also named for the historic plaintiff. Homer Plessy Day falls on June 7, the date of his arrest, and similarly memorializes Plessy and the fight for civil rights in New Orleans.
Most recently on January 5th, 2022, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a pardon for Homer Plessy for violating the 1890 Separate Car Act. Descendants who signed the pardon application, including Keith and Phoebe, bore witness to Governor Edwards issuing the posthumous pardon in an important step toward restorative justice for Plessy and other victims of racially discriminatory laws. The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation’s efforts to preserve, make known, and memorialize the history of Plessy v. Ferguson help us reconcile with the past and fuels our commitment to justice and equity in New Orleans and nationwide.