Who was Homer Plessy?
Homer Plessy was a French-speaking American person of color from the state of Louisiana who was the plaintiff in the United States Supreme Court decision in 'Plessy v. Ferguson'. As a member of the civil rights group the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens' Committee), he participated in a civil disobedience initiative against Louisiana's racial segregation laws by attempting to travel in the whites-only passenger car on the East Louisiana local from New Orleans and Covington on June 7, 1892. Plessy, who was one-eighth African-American but appeared white, was arrested in New Orleans upon divulging his racial identity, following which he and the lawyers of the committee claimed violation of civil rights due to the state's racial segregation law. However, the claim was dismissed by Judge John Howard Ferguson, whose decision was later upheld by the Louisiana State Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court, thus legitimizing the infamous Jim Crow system that also gave rise to separate school systems for whites and blacks. The decision was reversed following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in 'Brown v. Board of Education' and then by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Childhood & Early Life
Homer Adolph Plessy was born on March 17, 1862, in the French-speaking Creole community in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States to carpenter Joseph Adolphe Plessy and seamstress Rosa Debergue. His grandfather, Germain Plessy, a white man from France who had come to the US fleeing the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue, had married Catherine Mathieu, a free woman of color.
Homer Plessy lost his father at the age of seven, and in 1871, his mother married Victor M. Dupart, a post office clerk who also worked as a shoemaker in spare time for additional income. Following his stepfather, Plessy worked as a shoemaker at Patricio Brito's shoe-making business on Dumaine Street near North Rampart during the 1880s.
He was also influenced by his stepfather's involvement as a signatory in the 1873 Unification Movement that attempted to establish principles of equality in Louisiana. In 1887, he became vice-president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, which sought to reform public education in New Orleans.
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Arrest & Trial
Homer Plessy was a member of the Comité des Citoyens, a group consisting of African-Americans, whites, and Creoles that advocated equal civil rights to all races. The group was against the Separate Car Act of 1890 that required train companies to accommodate blacks and whites in 'equal but separate' cars.
In 1892, Plessy, who was light skinned enough to pass as white, volunteered to participate in an elaborate civil disobedience plan devised by the committee leadership. On June 7, he bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana local from New Orleans and Covington, and took seat in the whites-only passenger car.
When train conductor J.J. Dowling, conforming to the Separate Car Act, asked Plessy if he was a person of color, he mentioned that he was 7/8th white and refused to sit in the black-only car. He was arrested by Detective Christopher Cain within twenty minutes, following which he was imprisoned at the Orleans Parish jail and was released on a $500 bond the next day.
A month later, Comité des Citoyens lawyer Albion Tourgee argued before Judge John Howard Ferguson that Plessy's arrest violated his civil rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. However, Ferguson ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies operating within its borders and sentenced Plessy to pay a $25 fine.
Plessy had successfully petitioned for a writ of prohibition to the Louisiana State Supreme Court against the ruling by judge Ferguson. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld Ferguson's ruling citing a number of precedents, particularly one by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that stated segregated schools were constitutional.
While the State Supreme Court refused a rehearing, it issued him a writ of error, which allowed the Comité des Citoyens to take the case to the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard the 'Plessy v. Ferguson' case four years later in April 1896, by which time the condition of blacks had deteriorated throughout the country, and particularly in the South.
Tourgee argued that the state had violated the Thirteenth Amendment that prohibited slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment which granted equal rights to all U.S. citizens and equal protection to those rights. On May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion against Plessy upholding the constitutionality of Louisiana's separate car law.
Seven of the eight judges maintained that the ruling did not violate the 13th amendment, because it did not reintroduce slavery, or the 14th amendment, because the separate accommodation provided to each race were equal. Justice John Marshall Harlan was the only judge who dissented and harshly criticized the majority opinion for willful ignorance of the fact that the law implied that blacks were inferior.
The Plessy ruling legalized racial segregation by the states and marked a dark chapter during the reconstruction era by perpetuating separate school systems for the next half century. The ruling was eventually reversed following the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in 'Brown v. Board of Education', which declared that "separate but equal" policies violated civil rights of people of color.
Family & Personal Life
In 1888, 25-year-old Homer Plessy married 19-year-old Louise Bordenave at a ceremony officiated by Father Joseph Subileau at St. Augustine Church at 1210 Gov. Nicholls Street in New Orleans, with his employer Brito as witness. The next year, he settled with his family in the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood and was registered to vote in the Sixth Ward's Third Precinct.
After the move to challenge the Jim Crow system was unsuccessful, he returned to quieter life but remained active in the community's social organizations, like the Société des Francs-Amis and the Cosmopolitan Mutual Aid Association. Apart from working as a shoemaker, he was also registered as a laborer, clerk, and insurance agent who sold and collected premiums for the People's Life Insurance Company.
Plessy, who fathered three children with his wife, died at the age of 62 in 1925. He was buried in the Debergue-Blanco family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No.1.
Remembering his contributions to civil rights movements, the Louisiana House of Representatives and the New Orleans City Council observed the first Homer Plessy Day on June 7, 2005.
On February 10, 2009, Keith Plessy, the great-grandson of his first cousin, and Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of Judge Ferguson, established the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, which they announced by appearing together on WLTV. Two days later, they visited the site where Homer Plessy was arrested and placed a historical marker at the corner of Press and Royal streets commemorating the civil rights disobedience event.