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Summary Article: Plessy v. Ferguson
From Encyclopedia of American Studies

When Homer Plessy boarded an intrastate Louisiana train on June 7, 1892, his purpose was to challenge Section 2, Act III, passed by the Louisiana state legislature on July 10, 1890, which prescribed “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races” on its intrastate railroads. This law was only one of the many “black codes” passed by Southern legislatures to circumvent the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution after the 1876 compromise ended Reconstruction and Rutherford B. Hayes became president. African Americans in New Orleans orchestrated Plessy's arrest as a planned challenge to the Louisiana law after he had entered unnoticed into the “whites only” car. Plessy, who was one-eighth African and seven-eighths white, was chosen for the challenge because his ability to pass for white demonstrated the arbitrary nature of laws based on blood, race, or skin color. Albion Tourgée, a Northerner who had lived in the South, defended Plessy (without payment) before the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued its ruling on May 18, 1896.

At the Court the state of Louisiana argued that the law was a constitutionally mandated use of the state's power to secure the public good by preserving the peace and health of the community. Tourgée argued that the law deprived Plessy of his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and pointed to a section of the law that exempted “nurses attending children of the other race” to undermine the health argument. He said that the real intention of the law was to promote the happiness of whites at the expense of blacks. He also claimed that because the vast majority of Americans were white, Plessy had a property right in his reputation of being white and that removing him from the whites-only car deprived him of this property right without due process of law. Finally, Tourgée insisted that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments created affirmative rights and that the arbitrary assignment of racial categories to people perpetuated the essential feature of slavery. The justices were unconvinced by these arguments.

In the 7–1 majority opinion (Justice John Harlen dissenting and Justice David Brewer not participating) authored by Justice Henry Billings Brown, the Supreme Court avoided discussing whether or not separate but equal accommodations violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and left it up to each state to decide what constituted race. Instead, the Court anachronistically based its decision on legal precedents established prior to the passage of the Civil War Amendments. It chose as its precedent a school segregation case from 1855, decided by Judge Lemuel Shaw, the father-in-law of Herman Melville, in which Shaw ruled that the state of Massachusetts could segregate its public schools. The Court said that states had a reasonable regulative police authority to ensure “public peace and good order.” Brown cited the then prevalent separation between legal and social or civil rights and argued that the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was “to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law.” He asserted that laws requiring the social separation of races “do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race” and stipulated that the equality of separate accommodations ameliorated any “badge of inferiority.” Finally, in his most audacious claim, he wrote that an assumption of inferiority was unrelated to “anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” This decision served as the justification for other “separate but equal,” or so-called Jim Crow, laws, which were common throughout much of the United States until the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). While the Brown decision did not directly overturn Plessy, it did establish the illegality of “separate but equal” in education, which eventually led to the end of segregation in other areas of American culture.

“Negro Drinking at ‘Colored’ Water Cooler in Streetcar Terminal. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.” 1939. Russell Lee, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“Negro Going in Colored Entrance of Movie House, Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi.” 1939. Marion Post Wolcott, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“Roanoke Station of the Virginia & Western Railroad. Roanoke, Va. Colored Section.” 1950. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

  • Davis, Thomas J., Race, Identity and Law: Plessy v. Ferguson, in Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, ed. by Gordon-Reed, Annette (Oxford 2002), 61-76.
  • Elliott, Mark, Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford 2006).
  • Fireside, Harvey, Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court Decision That Legalized Racism (Basic Bks. 2003).
  • Hoffer, William James Hull, Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (Univ. Press of Kan. 2012).
  • Kelley, Blair L. M., Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (Univ. of N.C. Press 2010).
  • Kluger, Richard, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (Knopf 1975).
  • Lofgren, Charles A., The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation (Oxford 1987).
  • Medley, Keith Weldon, We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson (Penguin 2003).
  • Olsen, Otto H., The Thin Disguise: Turning Point in Negro History; Plessy v. Ferguson; A Documentary Presentation, 1864-1896 (Humanities Press 1967).
  • Thomas, Brook, Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Bks. 1997).
  • Michael Foote
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

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