Stop 3 of 7 in the Plessy v. Ferguson: The Fight for Civil Rights in New Orleans tour
Aristide Mary’s politics embodied Creole activism in New Orleans. A native of the city, Mary’s mixed race ancestry shaped his experiences and political ideas. Educated in Paris, Mary became a lawyer but his family’s inheritance helped propel him into a wealthy businessman. The ideas he learned in France about law and society influenced Mary’s political devotion to racial equality and integration, making him a member of the radical Republican Party following the Civil War. In particular, Mary advocated for integration and funded lawsuits to protest racial segregation. This influence was felt throughout New Orleans as he held positions on the Straight University Board of Trustees and on the Executive Committee, and facilitated multiple movements to fight for civil rights.
In 1873, Mary helped bring white and Black people in Louisiana together under the umbrella of unity to fight for equality and justice. During this period of racial violence and the denial of constitutional rights for Black Americans, Mary co-founded the biracial Unification Movement and rallied 1,800 Black and white men to sign their names to a document calling for racial equality. Exposition Hall housed the meetings, which sat on the 700 block of St. Charles Avenue. Within the Unification Movement, Mary served on the Committee of One Hundred and Committee of Resolutions to formulate the movement’s principles and resolutions calling for political justice, racial equality, and an end to discrimination. Composed of other highly respected New Orleans businessmen, including Paul Bonseigneur, Laurente Auguste, Eugene Luscy, and C. C. Antoine, these committees connected Creoles of color and gave them a platform for their activism.
Although the Unification Movement was short-lived, Mary continued to exert his influence and finances toward racial harmony in New Orleans. A few years later in 1877, Mary led a large delegation of his followers to protest the reinstatement of segregated schools in New Orleans. They believed that segregated schools would lead to segregated public spaces and infringe on public rights to equality. Not giving up the fight, Mary helped establish the Crescent City Arthur Republican Central Club where he was an honorary member. These types of clubs were formed in every ward throughout New Orleans and Louisiana and were based on affirming the principles of republicanism within the Republican Party.
In 1891, Mary again used his local influence and connections to help other Creole leaders, such as Rodolphe Desdunes and Louis Martinet, form the Comité des Citoyens (Citizen's Commitee). This organization of Black Creole activists planned to bring a legal challenge to segregation laws. Utilizing his finances, in addition to his experiences as a radical Republican and a leader of protests against school segregation, Mary helped Desdunes and Martinet devise a plan for Homer Plessy to board a train at the Press Street Station in New Orleans and contest the 1890 Separate Car Act.
Tragedy struck the Mary family as well as the Comité when Mary died by suicide in 1893. The Creole community had lost a prominent figure who radically fought for civil rights in the post-Civil War era. Additionally, the founding father of the Comité had left them before their legal protest against segregation was resolved in court. Even though Mary did not live to see the Plessy v. Ferguson case through, his impact on civil rights survived.