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Homer Plessy and the Comité des Citoyens

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes or pivotal figures during the Civil War era who could serve as replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. For the final installment, learn about Homer Plessy, New Orleans born civil rights activist. 


Homer Adolph Plessy. His name rings out from history. Constant recitation of the words Plessy v. Ferguson in schools and books has made him one of the most famous black men of the 19th century. When discussing who should sit atop Robert E. Lee’s old pedestal, Plessy is usually the first candidate named and that is because most of us are ignorant of the Comité des Citoyens.


Unlike most civil right agitators, Plessy is a shadowy figure. He was born March 17, 1862, when the city was still Confederate. He was mostly of white descent and born free. His childhood was spent in the violent world of racially-charged New Orleans politics that nevertheless saw great gains in political and civil rights for blacks. Plessy became a cobbler, one of the most popular businesses for black men. By the 1890s, the factories had devastated the trade, and Plessy worked as a laborer for most of the rest of his life.


Plessy was no stranger to political activism. He was vice-president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club which was dedicated to education reform. Then came segregation. Throughout the former Confederate states, laws were passed to limit black civil and voting rights. Louisiana was a relative latecomer to this movement. The Separate Car Act of 1890 at first seemed doomed to failure. Black voters and politicians tended to shift between party and faction depending upon who was granting them the most favors. Governor Francis Tillou Nicholls was a moderate on race matters and usually had black support except in his fight against the Louisiana Lottery. As payback for this betrayal, Nicholls’ signed the bill into law.


To fight the law, the Comité des Citoyens formed. It was made up of the elite of Afro-Creole society, including businessmen, lawyers, politicians, newspapermen, and teachers. It had considerable financial resources and national political connections. Among the supporters was Plessy, although he was not in the leadership. The Comité des Citoyens alternated between gloom and hope. They could see that the tide was turning against racial equality and towards a highly stratified society. The Republican Party was increasingly only paying lip service to equal rights; the presidency of Benjamin Harrison was seen as a set back. The Comité des Citoyens reasoned their only hope lay in the courts.


The Comité des Citoyens had two cases. In each they enlisted the aid of prominent lawyers and had an ally in the railroad companies, which did not want to build and maintain extra cars nor give their employees the odious and uncomfortable task of policing the railcars. Indeed, the Afro-Creoles, being mostly of European descent, argued that the law could not be perfectly enforced because many of them looked more white than black. The battle was a fight for equality that harkened back to the failed Unification Movement as well as the antebellum days. The two men selected to create an incident were Plessy and Daniel Desdunes. Both men were arrested in orchestrated acts meant to create a court battle.


The case that came before Judge John Ferguson was one dripping with contradictions. Ferguson was from Martha’s Vinyard and had backed the Union during the Civil War. He was considered a moderate on race issues. The prosecuting attorney was Lionel Adams, who was noted for his defense of Italian immigrants and later opposed the segregation of the streetcars. Plessy’s defense attorney was James C. Walker, a Confederate veteran. The attorney who almost took up Plessy’s defense later fought to annihilate black voting rights in Louisiana.


Ferguson had earlier overturned the case against Desdunes, but he ruled against Plessy. The case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where Nicholls was now chief justice. The court quickly upheld Ferguson. Judge Charles Fenner, a Confederate veteran and close friend of Jefferson Davis, played the most prominent role in the state case. Plessy now went to the Supreme Court.


The Comité des Citoyens faced a tall order. The court was dominated by men from the North, including two former anti-slavery agitators, but also men with an obsessive deference to state’s rights and opposition to regulation. The Republican Party did little to aid the effort. The aging Frederick Douglass remained silent, but by then he was less an agitator and more a Republican Party operative. Walker was too sick to help any further, so it all fell on Albion Tourgee, a Union veteran and noted judge and novelist. Tourgee attacked the case from the point of view of regulation, but the judges were unmoved. Seven to one the court ruled for Ferguson. All of those seven were northerners, most were Republicans. Most notably Stephen Field, who was appointed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, sided with Ferguson. The ringing lone dissent was made by John Harlan of Kentucky. The same day of the decision, May 18, 1896, Murphy J. Foster was sworn in for a second term as governor. Under his rule, black voting rights were eviscerated.


Plessy returned to New Orleans, paying his fine and witnessing the final destruction of equality. He sold insurance and was active in his community, but never became a major player. By the time of his death in 1925 segregation was strictly enforced and blacks throughout the south were migrating North for better jobs and more rights. New Orleans was especially hard hit as the early Jazz greats left for friendly quarters. Sadly, even in the North blacks faced discrimination and violence. The NAACP was founded in reaction to a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, the center of Lincoln worship.


All historical figures can be bent to the will and whim of one group or another. Plessy though is so unknown that he can be whatever we want him to be. Plessy is a cipher. Lately he has gotten more recognition, with McDonough Number 15 in the French Quarter being renamed after him. The site of his arrest received a historical marker in 2009. I can’t help but think it is all because Plessy’s name is in the court case. So many other deserving people involved in that fight are all but forgotten: Tourgee, Walker, Desdunes, not to mention Louis Martinet, Paul Bonseigneur, Aristide Mary, and Rodolphe Desdunes. A monument to Plessy is not enough. There needs to be something for the Comité des Citoyens. We instead prefer the big ticket names: Douglass, Tubman, and Plessy.  


The Comité des Citoyens is doubly impressive for taking on segregation when the tide was against them. Neither Douglass nor Booker T. Washington offered aid; the Republican Party had all but abandoned black voters. Scientific racism was being taught in Harvard. In the age of European empires, white superiority was considered obvious. The Comité des Citoyens refused to be pushed with the tide of racial inequality.


Here ends my long digression on local Civil War era notables that are largely forgotten today. American schools, ordered to emphasize math and science over the humanities, have gutted history classes, creating an ever increasing ignorance. The effect is two-fold. We lose historical imagination, and therefore cannot understand what our ancestors did and why, and forget that understanding how and why is not the same as condoning. History is also reduced to a series of tragedies and triumphs with a few famous names thrown in. It is good that the school named after Nicholls was renamed, but the choice of Douglass was pedestrian. Why not Trévigne, Callioux, Dunn, Badger, Hahn, Walker, Cable, or Desdunes? The nation is rushing the dismantle Confederate monuments wholesale, but what is more important is what should fill the void. Destruction is easy. Construction is harder — but can unite us. Perhaps I am naïve, but it is a naïveté born out of empathy, hope, intelligence and understanding.

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