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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Louisiana board votes to pardon namesake of ‘separate but equal’ ruling

Homer Plessy, who boarded a “whites-only” train car in 1892 as a civil rights demonstration and whose case led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling, has been recommended for posthumous pardon.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — It's been more than 120 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the “separate but equal” doctrine that began segregation in American, but Homer Plessy, the mixed-race Creole man who famously refused to sit in the “colored” section of a train and whose name became synonymous with the ruling, is finally on his way to being pardoned.

The Louisiana Board of Pardons voted unanimously Friday morning to posthumously clear Plessy’s record of a conviction for refusing to leave a "whites-only" train car in New Orleans. The matter now heads to Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who will have final say over the pardon.

Plessy, a French-speaking Creole born in New Orleans whose family was able to pass as white. As French Creoles, they were considered free people of color and generally enjoyed the same liberties as their fellow Americans. Plessy boarded the white car of a train in 1892 to challenge segregation rules, much like Rosa Parks would do 63 years later by refusing to move to the colored section of a bus, but his attempt instead became the legal face of segregation under the emerging Jim Crow era.

He boarded a train from what is now the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans headed for Covington, Louisiana, 40 miles north of the city, as part of a civil rights group’s challenge to a then-newly enacted state law that forced segregated seating. The Comité des Citoyens, a civil rights group of Blacks, whites and Creoles, opposed racial segregation and was responsible for multiple demonstrations, including the one for which Plessy is known.

Since Plessy was able to pass as white, the group alerted the train before he boarded and hired an inspector to make a spectacle of recognizing that Plessy, a colored man, was trying to get away with boarding the whites-only car.

In 2018, a section of Press Street in the Bywater neighborhood in New Orleans where Homer Plessy attempted to board a “whites-only” train car in protest of segregation was renamed to Homer Plessy Way. (Sabrina Canfield/Courthouse News)

But the group’s effort to force a reckoning with the rising racism in the South did not work.

Plessy was charged with boarding a whites-only car and was convicted after a trial. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the conviction, and Plessy appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation's highest court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 that the state’s racial segregation laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution as long as the facilities for the races were of equal quality. The justices essentially held it was perfectly legal to divide the population by race.

A year later, Plessy changed his plea to guilty of violating the Separate Car Act and paid a $25 fine. He died in 1925 with the conviction still on his record.

The Supreme Court's ruling was used to justify segregation in the United States for more than half a century, and was one of several that brought the country into the Jim Crow era.

The tide began to turn in 1954 with the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education at the beginning of the civil rights movement, which held that the “separate but equal” doctrine is unconstitutional when it came to schools. The next year, Rosa Parks sat in the “white” section of a bus in defiance of segregated transportation. In the 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that bus segregation is unconstitutional.

In 2009, decades after Plessy’s death, his descendants and those of John Howard Ferguson, the judge who oversaw Plessy's case in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, created a nonprofit foundation to advocate for civil rights education.  

Plessy’s recommended pardon is just one of several actions in recent years made to acknowledge his role in history. In 2018, the New Orleans City Council voted to rename the section of Press Street where Plessy attempted to board the train to Homer Plessy Way. His name has also been given to a public school located in the heart of the French Quarter with an upper campus in Tremé, a neighborhood in the city that was established in the 1810s and is often referred to as the “oldest Black neighborhood in America” because of its history as a popular neighborhood for “free people of color.”

A civil rights mural in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans depicts a mother and her daughter behind a newspaper article with a headline that reads: "High court bans segregation in public schools.” (Sabrina Canfield/Courthouse News)
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Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Law, National

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