A Pardon For Homer Plessy

His act of civil disobedience led to a Supreme Court decision that upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine. Now his record is clear.  

Sarin Images/The Granger Collection

A Black man being expelled from a train because of his race, in an 1856 engraving.

On June 7, 1892, a racially mixed shoemaker from New Orleans named Homer Plessy bought a first-class ticket for a train bound for Covington, Louisiana, and took a seat in the Whites-only car. He was asked to leave, and after he refused, he was dragged from the train and charged with violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act. He pleaded guilty and was fined $25.

Now, nearly 130 years after the arrest, Plessy has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the state of Louisiana. In January, Governor John Bel Edwards signed a posthumous pardon, acting after a vote by the Louisiana Board of Pardons.

“It left a stain on the fabric of our country and on this state and on this city,” Edwards said before he signed the pardon, speaking at the New Orleans station where Plessy boarded the train before his arrest. “And, quite frankly, those consequences are still felt today.”

On June 7, 1892, a racially mixed shoemaker from New Orleans named Homer Plessy bought a first-class train ticket. Plessy then took a seat in the Whites-only car on the train, which was bound for Covington, Louisiana. He was asked to leave, but he refused. He was then dragged from the train and charged with violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act. He pleaded guilty and was fined $25.

Now, nearly 130 years after the arrest, Plessy has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the state of Louisiana. In January, Governor John Bel Edwards signed a posthumous pardon. It followed a vote by the Louisiana Board of Pardons.

“It left a stain on the fabric of our country and on this state and on this city,” Edwards said before he signed the pardon, speaking at the New Orleans station where Plessy boarded the train before his arrest. “And, quite frankly, those consequences are still felt today.”

Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives

A segregated bus in Birmingham, Alabama, before 1950

After his arrest, Plessy filed a petition against the presiding judge, John H. Ferguson, and became a central figure in a legal battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark ruling that resulted in the case, Plessy v. Ferguson, came to be regarded as one of the most shameful decisions in the Court’s history as well as one of the most consequential. It endorsed the “separate but equal” doctrine and gave legal backing to the Jim Crow laws that segregated and disenfranchised African Americans in the South for decades. That doctrine was finally overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case in 1954 (see “Overturning Plessy,” below).

Officials described pardoning Plessy, who died in 1925, as an attempt to rectify wrongs of the past and, beyond that, acknowledge the vast and devastating reach the Supreme Court decision had. Jason Williams, the Orleans Parish district attorney, says the racial disparities and discrimination that extended from that ruling ultimately were at the heart of the protests that erupted in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

“Much of that is based on this Supreme Court ruling and everything that grew from it,” he says.

After his arrest, Plessy filed a petition against the presiding judge, John H. Ferguson. He then became a central figure in a legal battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark ruling that resulted in the case, Plessy v. Ferguson, is viewed as one of the most shameful and significant decisions in the Court’s history. It sustained the “separate but equal” doctrine and gave legal backing to the Jim Crow laws that segregated and disenfranchised African Americans in the South for decades. That doctrine was finally overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case in 1954 (see “Overturning Plessy,” below).

Plessy died in 1925. Officials described pardoning him as an attempt to right the wrongs of the past. They also acknowledge the wide reach and harm the Supreme Court decision had. Jason Williams, the Orleans Parish district attorney, says the racial disparities and discrimination that came from that ruling were at the heart of the protests that erupted in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

“Much of that is based on this Supreme Court ruling and everything that grew from it,” he says.

Trying to Get Arrested

In making their decision, parole board officials cited a 2006 Louisiana state law that calls for pardoning individuals who had been convicted of violating laws enacted with the purpose of enforcing segregation or discrimination. The 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act was precisely that kind of law. It was part of a flurry of segregationist legislation pursued across the South in an effort to construct a new racist order after Reconstruction following the Civil War (1861-65).

Plessy had boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans intending to get arrested. He was an activist who was part of a local civil rights group that was infuriated by the Separate Car Act. The group chose Plessy as the one to ride the train because he could pass for a White man.

In making their decision, parole board officials cited a 2006 Louisiana state law that calls for pardoning individuals who had been convicted of violating laws enacted with the purpose of enforcing segregation or discrimination. The 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act was exactly that kind of law. It was part of a surge of segregationist legislation pursued across the South. The push stemmed from an effort to build a new racist order after Reconstruction following the Civil War (1861-65).

Plessy had boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans intending to get arrested. He was an activist who was part of a local civil rights group. The Separate Car Act had made them angry. In response, the group chose Plessy as the one to ride the train because he could pass for a White man.

‘It left a stain on the fabric of our country.’

A conductor asked Plessy if he was “colored,” and he said that he was. When the conductor instructed him to move to a different car, Plessy resisted. After his arrest, the activist group, the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, posted his $500 bond.

His first court appearance came four months later before Judge Ferguson, who ruled against Plessy and in favor of the Separate Car Act. Plessy’s lawyers brought an appeal to higher courts, and the case continued for several years before it reached the Supreme Court in 1896.

The Court ruled against Plessy, 7-1.

The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, wrote: “In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

A conductor asked Plessy if he was “colored,” and he said that he was. When the conductor told him to move to a different car, Plessy resisted. After his arrest, the activist group, the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, posted his $500 bond.

His first court appearance came four months later before Judge Ferguson. The judge ruled against Plessy and in favor of the Separate Car Act. Plessy’s lawyers then brought an appeal to higher courts. The case continued for several years before it reached the Supreme Court in 1896.

The Court ruled against Plessy, 7-1.

The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, wrote: “In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

Bill Haber/AP Images

Descendants of Plessy and Ferguson (left) Keith M. Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson

Plessy returned to Judge Ferguson’s courtroom, where he entered his guilty plea and was fined $25. He went on to work as a collector for an insurance company.

The pardon grew out of a larger effort by descendants of Plessy and Judge Ferguson to educate others on the continued relevance of Plessy’s actions and the long, damaging reach of the ruling.

Plessy returned to Judge Ferguson’s courtroom, where he entered his guilty plea and was fined $25. He went on to work as a collector for an insurance company.

The pardon grew out of a larger effort by descendants of Plessy and Judge Ferguson to highlight the continued importance of Plessy’s actions and the long, damaging reach of the ruling.

In recent years, descendants of both sides of the case have bonded over their shared history and work together to educate others on its relevance now. Part of their efforts are amplifying Plessy’s legacy, trying to bring more attention to him, and showing the link between his efforts as an activist and the nonviolent disobedience of the civil rights movement that came generations later.

“I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today because the ancestors are carrying me,” Keith M. Plessy, a distant relative of Plessy’s, said after the pardon. Along with Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of the judge, he started the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. “This is truly a blessed day,” he said.

In recent years, descendants of both sides of the case have bonded over their shared history. They’ve worked together to educate others on its relevance now. They’ve tried to bring more attention to Plessy and his legacy. And they’ve highlighted the link between his efforts as an activist and the nonviolent disobedience of the civil rights movement that came generations later.

“I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today because the ancestors are carrying me,” Keith M. Plessy, a distant relative of Plessy’s, said after the pardon. Along with Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of the judge, he started the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. “This is truly a blessed day,” he said.

Rick Rojas writes about the South and other topics for The New York Times.

Rick Rojas writes about the South and other topics for The New York Times.

Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo

An integrated class in Washington, D.C., 1957

Overturning Plessy

Plessy v. Ferguson was the first major Supreme Court test of the meaning of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that racial segregation was constitutional. And after Plessy v. Ferguson, it would be 58 years before the “separate but equal” doctrine was overturned. In the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools for White and Black people were inherently unequal and unconstitutional. Even after the ruling, many schools in the South initially refused to integrate. But the case set a new legal precedent: Racial segregation—not just at public schools, but at all public facilities—violated the Constitution.

Plessy v. Ferguson was the first major Supreme Court test of the meaning of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that racial segregation was constitutional. And after Plessy v. Ferguson, it would be 58 years before the “separate but equal” doctrine was overturned. In the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools for White and Black people were inherently unequal and unconstitutional. Even after the ruling, many schools in the South initially refused to integrate. But the case set a new legal precedent: Racial segregation—not just at public schools, but at all public facilities—violated the Constitution.

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