Homer Plessy, a Creole shoemaker from New Orleans and the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, was pardoned by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday, 130 years after Plessy challenged a Louisiana law that required Black passengers and white passengers to use separate train cars. The case sanctioned the “separate but equal” doctrine and validated state laws that segregated public facilities along the lines of race. The decision effectively legalized Jim Crow segregation for the next 60 years.
The case sanctioned the “separate but equal” doctrine and validated state laws that segregated public facilities along the lines of race.
As historian Blair L.M. Kelley explains in “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019“: “Plessy v. Ferguson was the manifestation of the African American opposition to segregationist attempts to shame and degrade Black train passengers.”
The decision to pardon Homer Plessy is a welcome one, an effort to clear his name and raise national awareness to his story. It is also a symbolic gesture to acknowledge a wrong that took place so long ago. In the proclamation Edwards signed Wednesday, he praised “the heroism and patriotism” of Plessy’s “unselfish sacrifice to advocate for and to demand equality and human dignity for all of Louisiana’s citizens.”
Born a free Black person on March 17, 1862, in New Orleans, Plessy was seven-eighths white and one-eighth Black. He could easily pass for white.
During the 1880s, Plessy, a civil rights activist, served as vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club, which set out to reform New Orleans’ public education system. In 1890, Plessy amplified his political activism in response to Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, which segregated public facilities. According to the new law, “all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State, shall provide equal but separate accommodation for the white and colored race.”
To challenge the new law on the grounds that it violated the 13th and the 14th Amendments, New Orleans activists of color in Comité des Citoyens (the Citizens’ Committee) devised a plan for Plessy to board a train on June 7, 1892, and intentionally sit in the “whites only” section. Plessy, then 30, who could easily pass for white, proved to be a valuable asset for the civil rights organization.
The Citizens’ Committee coordinated with the East Louisiana Railroad Co. to ensure that Plessy would be caught. On the train ride from New Orleans to nearby Covington, Plessy occupied a seat in the “whites only” car and when he refused an order to move to the “colored only” section, he was removed, arrested, charged and later convicted.
Plessy occupied a seat in the “whites only” car and when he refused an order to move to the “colored only” section, he was removed, arrested, charged and later convicted.
When Plessy’s appeal of his conviction eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, he argued that the Louisiana law violated his rights and that, in doing so, reinforced the belief that Black people were inferior to white people. But in a 7-1 decision, the court ruled on May 18, 1896, that the Separate Car Act did not violate the Constitution. The court rejected Plessy’s argument that the Louisiana law implied that Black people were inferior, thereby upholding the notion of “separate but equal.”
Justice Henry Billings Brown, writing for the majority, placed the authority to segregate a population within the power of a state legislature. He argued that the 14th Amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social … equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
While state legislatures were already acting within this framework, the decision in Plessy gave additional legal cover for segregation along the lines of race and signaled the unlikelihood of federal intervention. “[W]hen viewed strictly as a story about legal history,” Kelley explains, “Plessy is the top of a slippery slope down to an American South where Jim Crow segregation marked every landscape.” The case would not be overturned until 1954 and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated public schools.
Indeed, Plessy ushered in decades of codified segregation and discrimination. As Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, recently pointed out, “Imagine if Homer Plessy had won. … We would not have had some 70 years of racial division.”
He added: “We would not have had the system of segregation, separate water fountains, buses, schools, public facilities. We would not have had the levels of disparity in health and criminal justice and economic life that we experienced because that ruling sanctioned unequal.”
As damaging as the ruling was for society as a whole, for Homer Plessy himself, the Supreme Court’s decision meant his conviction was upheld. The decision to pardon Plessy and finally clear his record are the culmination of efforts by Keith Plessy, the great-great-grandson of Homer Plessy’s cousin, and Phoebe Ferguson, the great-great-granddaughter of John H. Ferguson, the Louisiana judge who upheld the state’s Separate Car Act and was the defendant in the Supreme Court case that bears his name.
The pardon also follows the efforts of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, who, soon after taking office last January, told Louisiana’s Board of Pardons that there was no doubt Plessy “was guilty of that act on that date, but there’s equally no doubt that such an act should have never been a crime in this country.” At Wednesday’s ceremony, Williams reinforced that point when he said, “Homer Plessy was no criminal. He was then—and he is now—a hero.”
The decision to pardon Homer Plessy is an important symbolic gesture.
Plessy’s pardon is not an isolated event but should be viewed within the context of civil rights activism in Louisiana. A Board of Pardons hearing on Plessy’s pardon on Nov. 12, 2021, coincided with the anniversary of the desegregation of New Orleans’ public schools on Nov. 14, 1960. Three Black students who integrated the city’s McDonogh 19 Elementary School were in attendance to witness the board unanimously approve a pardon for Plessy after only 15 minutes of deliberation.
Much like the recent move to expunge the record of Claudette Colvin, another civil rights pioneer, the decision to pardon Homer Plessy is an important symbolic gesture. It recognizes Plessy’s courage in challenging a racist and unjust law. It has greater implications, too. It represents the acknowledgement of past harms — a first and crucial step to redress.