Homer A. Plessy (1863-1925) — Civil Rights Advocate, Plaintiff in Supreme Court Decision: Plessy v. Ferguson
Introduction: Homer A. Plessy was the plaintiff in the middle of the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that confirmed the concept of “separate but equal” in U.S. law which then opened the door even wider for legal segregation, commonly known as “Jim Crow” laws. On June 7, 1892, the mixed-race Plessy deliberately sat in a whites-only rail car to test a new Louisiana state law requiring separate cars on trains for whites and blacks. He was forced to leave the train, arrested and fined; however, Homer Plessy’s interrupted train ride became the basis of , the Supreme Court case that gave legal cover to seventy more years of Jim Crow laws. Plessy, a shoemaker, was recruited by the Comité des Citoyens, an association of prominent mixed-race men who were considered free people of color before the Civil War. They wanted to challenge the 1890 state Separate Car Law in order to halt the growth of Jim Crow, which was undoing the gains blacks made during Reconstruction.
Plessy was an “octoroon,” or one-eighth black. The Comité des Citoyens thought his light complexion would show the arbitrariness of the law, and that Plessy would make a more sympathetic figure to white people. He boarded the East Louisiana Railroad Co. train at Press and Royal streets in New Orleans. To ensure the test case would work, the committee hired a private detective to detain Plessy for the police and had the cooperation of the conductor for the East Louisiana Railroad to ensure that Plessy was challenged. The railroad opposed the whites-only state law because of the cost of maintaining separate cars.
Biography: Homer Plessy was born Homère Patrice Plessy March 17, 1862 in New Orleans to Joseph Adolphe Plessy and Rosa Debergue, members of New Orleans’ free people-of-color caste. Homer Plessy’s paternal grandfather was Germain Plessy, a white Frenchman born c. 1777. Germain Plessy arrived in New Orleans with thousands of other Haitian expatriates who fled Haiti in the wake of the slave rebellion that wrested Haiti from Emperor Napoleon in the 1790s. Germain Plessy married Catherine Mathieu, a free woman of color, and they had eight children, including Homer Plessy’s father, Joseph Adolphe Plessy.
Homer Plessy’s middle name would later appear as Adolphe, after his father, on his birth certificate. His parents were classified as Creoles, or free people of color, with African and French forebears. Plessy grew up speaking French. His father, Adolphe Plessy, a carpenter, died when Homer was seven years old. In 1871, his mother Rosa Debergue Plessy, a seamstress, married Victor M. Dupart, a clerk for the U.S. Post Office who supplemented his income by working as a shoemaker. Plessy too became a shoemaker. During the 1880s, he worked at Patricio Brito’s shoe-making business on Dumaine Street near North Rampart. New Orleans city directories from 1886-1924 list his occupations as shoemaker, laborer, clerk, and insurance agent.
By 1887, Plessy became vice-president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans.
In 1888, Plessy, then twenty-five years old, married nineteen-year old Louise Bordenave at a ceremony led by Father Joseph Subileau at St. Augustine Church which is located at 1210 Gov. Nicholls Street in New Orleans. Plessy’s employer Brito served as the witness. In 1889, the Plessys moved to Fauberg Treme at 1108 North Claiborne Avenue. He registered to vote in the Sixth Ward’s Third Precinct.
Plessy returned to anonymity after the decision of the Plessy v. Ferguson case. He died in 1925 and is buried in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery. A plaque commemorating his role in history is on his tombstone.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Anna T. Micklin, Evergreen State College and posted on BlackPast.org
Civil Rights Advocate
Plaintiff for a landmark Supreme Court case, Homer A. Plessy was born on March 17, 1863 in New Orleans. He was a light-skinned Creole of Color during the post-reconstruction years.
With the aid of the Comité des Citoyens, a black organization in New Orleans, Homer Plessy became the plaintiff in the famous Plessy v. Ferguson case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1896. The decision established the “separate but equal” policy that made racial segregation constitutional for the next six decades.
In order to challenge the 1890 Louisiana statute requiring separate accommodations for whites and blacks, Homer Plessy and the Comité des Citoyens used Plessy’s light skin to their advantage. On June 7, 1892 Plessy bought a first class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway. He took a vacant seat in a coach reserved for white passengers. When Plessy was ordered to leave, he disobeyed. Policemen arrived and threw Plessy off the train and arrested him and threw him into jail. He was charged with violating the Louisiana segregation statute of 1890.
Contending that the law violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, Plessy petitioned a writ of prohibition to the Louisiana state Supreme Court against Judge John H. Ferguson. The state Supreme Court denied Plessy, holding that the law was constitutional, but allowed his writ of error to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawyers A.W. Tourgée and S.F. Phillips represented Plessy. His argument to the Supreme Court was that as a citizen of the United States, a resident of Louisiana and of mixed descent, with unrecognizable “colored blood,” he deserved the rights and privileges secured to white people by the Constitution.
Justice Henry Brown delivered the majority decision of the court, holding that the Louisiana law did not violate the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments because it did not deprive liberties or properties without due process of the laws. Justice John Marshall Harlan issued the lone dissent, stating that the separation of citizens on the basis of race went against the civil freedoms granted in the Constitution and the Civil Rights amendments. Ultimately, the Plessy decision only opened the door for more segregation laws, which were also called the Jim Crow Laws. In 1954, 58 years later, the Brown v. Board of Education decision overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Homer A. Plessy, an insurance agent into his early sixties, died on March 1, 1925 in New Orleans.
Editor’s Note: The text from the Bronze Plaque.
|HOMER ADOLPH PLESSY|
1862-1925ON JUNE 7, 1892, HOMER ADOLPH PLESSY
DEFIED A LOUISIANA LAW THAT
SEGREGATED RAILROAD TRAINS ON THE
BASIS OF RACE. HE WAS ARRESTED
AND BECAME THE DEFENDANT IN THE
MAY 18, 1896 UNITED STATES SUPREME
COURT DECISION OF PLESSY V. FERGUSON,
WHICH CONDONED “SEPARATE BUT
EQUAL” FACILITIES IN THE UNITED
STATES. SPONSORED BY A NEW ORLEANS
GROUP, CALLED THE “COMITÉ DES
CITOYENS,” PLESSY’S CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
MARKED ONE OF THE FIRST LEGAL
CHALLENGES TO THE SEPARATION OF
RACES IN THE SOUTH FOLLOWING THE
RECONSTRUCTION PERIOD. THOUGH HE
LOST THE CASE IN 1896, THE COURT
LATER UPHELD PLESSY’S FOURTEENTH
AMENDMENT ARGUMENTS IN 1954 IN
BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION. THE
COMITÉ DES CITOYENS INCLUDED LOUIS
ANDRE MARTINET, ATTORNEY AND
PUBLISHER OF THE CRUSADER NEWSPAPER,
AND RODOLPHE DESDUNES, A WRITER
FOR THE CRUSADER, WHO IS ENTOMBED
IN ST. LOUIS CEMETERY NO. II. LEAD
ATTORNEYS IN THE CASE WERE
JAMES WALKER OF NEW ORLEANS AND
THE NOTED RECONSTRUCTION AUTHOR,
ALBION W. TOURGES OF NEW YORK.
Otto H. Olsen, ed., The Thin Disguise: Turning Point in Negro History, Plessy v. Ferguson (New York: Humanities Press Inc., 1967)
Rayford Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982).
Contributor: Anna T. Micklin, Evergreen State College
Republished with permission from BlackPast.org: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/plessy-homer-1863-1925