Homer Plessy’s one act of civil disobedience inspired the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century. He is most known as the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark court case opposing segregation. In 1892, as a racially mixed shoemaker, he defied Louisiana segregation laws by refusing to board a whites-only train car. He did it on behalf of the Citizens Committee, a New Orleans civil rights organization that chose him because he could pass for a white guy.
Plessy, like many of the gens de couleur — Louisiana’s free Creole people of color — could have easily passed for white, according to history. He defined himself as “seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood” because his great-grandmother was from Africa. He was born in New Orleans on March 17, 1863, to a family of mixed ethnic origin.
Plessy’s father died when he was six years old, and his mother married shoemaker and political activist Victor M. Dupart. Plessy decided to master the shoemaking craft as a child to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps. Plessy became involved in social activity after witnessing his father’s efforts as a member of the Unification Movement, a civil rights movement dedicated to ending discrimination. By 1887, he was vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, which was working to reform New Orleans’ public schools.
In New Orleans, which had a significant population of freed slaves and “free people of color,” White and Black people interacted very openly before the 1880s. Black people were allowed to marry whomever they pleased, attend the same schools as Whites, and ride the same streetcars as Whites. According to The New York Times, many new segregationist laws were introduced throughout the post-Reconstruction South by the 1880s, notably the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act.
Railroads were required by state legislatures to offer separate cars for “Negro” or “colored” passengers. Plessy chose to challenge these statutes on behalf of the Citizens Committee in the hopes of drawing the Supreme Court’s attention to the issue.
Plessy bought a train ticket from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana, on June 7, 1892, and sat in the “whites only” section, expecting to be kicked off the train or jailed, or both. A conductor soon inquired if he was “racial.” Plessy stated that he was.
The conductor instructed, “Then you must withdraw to the colored car.” Plessy, on the other hand, declined. Soon after, a private detective hauled Plessy off the train, arrested him, and accused him with violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act with the cooperation of other passengers. Plessy was imprisoned for the night, and his supporters paid his bail.
When his case was heard in criminal court four months later, Judge John Howard Ferguson decided not to hold a trial. According to The New York Times, he instead supported the constitutionality of the Louisiana Separate Car Act, “allowing Plessy’s legal team to appeal the ruling and keep Plessy out of jail.” Plessy’s lawyers took the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, claiming that the Separate Car Act was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
The decision of Judge Ferguson was supported by the higher court. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the Separate Car Act in Plessy v. Ferguson, which was decided on May 18, 1896. It determined that racially separated public facilities were legal as long as Black and White persons had equal access to them.
“In declaring separate-but-equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads, the Court ruled that the 14th Amendment protections applied only to political and civil rights (like voting and jury service), not “social rights” (like sitting in the railroad car of your choice,” according to HISTORY.
The decision cemented the Jim Crow era, resulting in segregation on railroads, buses, schools, and other public spaces. This persisted for the following 58 years, until the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the “separate but equal” theory in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling in 1954 that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
The case of Plessy v. Board of Education, as well as reasoning from it, were used in the 1954 historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling. He had received justice, despite the fact that he was not living in 1954.
Plessy reported to Ferguson’s court to address the accusation of violating the Separate Car Act when the Supreme Court decided his case in 1869. He entered a guilty plea and paid the $25 fee. He returned to his family. He and his wife lived quietly in New Orleans, working as laborers, warehousemen, and clerks. Before dying on March 1, 1925, at the age of 61, he worked as a collector for a Black-owned insurance company.
Despite his court failure, his train-car protest, which took place years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery to a White passenger, had a significant impact on the Civil Rights Movement. His initiatives influenced the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In New Orleans, “Homer A. Plessy Day” was established to honor his legacy. In addition, he has a park named after him.
Plessy and Ferguson’s relatives have come together to form The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, which will not only protect Plessy’s memory but also promote “civil rights education, preservation, and outreach.”