On June 7, 1892, a 30-year-old African-American man named Homer Plessy attempted to board a segregated East Louisiana Railroad passenger train car at Press and Royal Streets in New Orleans. Louisiana's Separate Car Act, passed in 1890, required the segregation of rail passengers traveling on intrastate railroads.

A group of New Orleanians organized as the Comite' des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) decided to challenge the law. The committee selected Plessy for the legal campaign, in part, because of his light complexion. A darker-complected person would not likely have been able to purchase a ticket and be seated in the rail car reserved for whites. Plessy purchased a ticket to board the train that departed at 4:15 p.m. for Covington, Louisiana. After a planned altercation with the train conductor, Plessy refused to give up his seat and move to the colored only car; the train was stopped and he was arrested immediately by a private detective hired by the Comite' des Citoyens.

In State of Louisiana v. Homer Adolph Plessy, Plessy argued that the Louisiana law requiring segregated passenger cars had denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution. However, Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies as long as they operated within state boundaries. Plessy was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine.

Plessy applied for writs to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, arguing that the law segregating train passengers by race within the state of Louisiana was unconstitutional. In January 1893, Louisiana's highest court denied Plessy's application for writs and upheld Judge Ferguson's ruling. The Louisiana Supreme Court noted that the US Supreme Court had not yet decided the validity of statutes requiring, under penalty, "separate and equal accommodations." Plessy then applied for writs to the US Supreme Court, where, once again, the Louisiana statute was upheld. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that separating the races was not a violation of rights, but a matter of public policy, as long as the separate facilities were equal.

Plessy v Ferguson thus became universally known as the "separate but equal law." This law sanctioned the segregation of public accommodations throughout much of the nation. It was later overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.


Excerpt from Streetcar Stories documentary, featuring an interview with UNO Emeritus Professor of History Raphael Cassimere, Jr.
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