Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Homer Plessy (March 17, 1862, New Orleans, Louisiana – March 1, 1925, New Orleans, Louisiana) colored (because of an African American great grandmother) man who agreed, to a group called Citizens' Committee of African Americans and Creoles, to violate the Separate Car law, which called for the segregation of passenger trains traveling within the state of Louisiana, to bring about a Supreme Court case, which he did in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Homer Adolph Plessy was born on March 17, 1862, in New Orleans, Louisiana to Adolphe and Rosa Debergue Plessy, a family of mixed heritage. The entire family was light skinned and their only claim to an African American heritage was a distant relative (as mentioned above). Plessy's father died when he was five and his mother soon married. He was soon apprenticed as a shoemaker his stepfather's profession and later entered the profession himself. In 1887, Plessy married Louise Bordenave.
The Citizens' Committee around 1890 angered by the recently passed Separate Car law and other segregation acts hired Albion Winegar Tourgee, a white New York attorney who had previously fought for the rights of African Americans, to lead the challenge. In 1892 they got Plessy to agree to violate the Separate Car law.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad, running between New Orleans and Covington, and sat in the "whites only" passenger car. When the conductor came to collect his ticket, he told him that he was 1/8 African American, and he was refusing sit in the black only car. Plessy was immediately arrested by Detective Chris C. Cain, booked into the Parish jail, and released the next day on a $500.00 bond.
Plessy's case was heard before Judge John Ferguson one month after his arrest. Tourgee argued that Plessy's civil rights, as granted by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, had been violated. Ferguson denied this argument and ruled that Louisiana, by state law, had the power to set rules which regulated railroad business within its borders.
The Louisiana State Supreme Court refused to grant a rehearing but did allow a petition for writ of error. This petition was accepted by the United States Supreme Court and four years later, in April 1896, arguments for Plessy v. Ferguson began. Tourgee argued that the state of Louisiana had violated the Thirteenth Amendment which granted freedom to the slaves and the Fourteenth Amendment which stated, "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law."
On May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Brown delivered the majority opinion in favor of the state of Louisiana. In part, the judgment read, "The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to the either ... if the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of voluntary consent of the individuals."
The lone dissenting vote was cast by Justice John Marshall Harlan. In his dissenting brief, he wrote, "I am of opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that state and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States."
The "Separate but Equal" law remained valid until 58 years later, in 1954, when it was overturned in the another United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education.
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