120 years ago today (5.18), the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a seven-to-one decision in Plessy versus Ferguson effectively beginning the Jim Crow era. While much has changed in the time since, there is still much work to be done and the descendants of the New Orleans men at the center of the case are leading the charge.
Two families on either sides of a historic civil rights landmark—Plessy and Ferguson—came together in 2005 to heal New Orleans through preservation. Eleven years ago, Keith Plessy met Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of the judge who sparked half a century of sanctioned segregation. Although the pair came from different sides of a major court decision, Plessy decided to use the past as a tool for racial healing in New Orleans, a city still rife with inequality.
“She began to apologize for the past when we first met, and I told her ‘Phoebe, it’s no longer Plessy vs. Ferguson, it’s Plessy and Ferguson,” said Plessy.
The landmark 1896 decision solidified the “separate but equal” precedent to the U.S. Constitution, which established Jim Crow in the South and prevailed until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Although the case did not make it to SCOTUS until 1896, the struggle began four years earlier with a group of 18 well-organized activists, the “Committee of Citizens.”
The group persuaded member Homer Plessy to buy a ticket on a “whites only” train car in order to combat the Louisiana’s Separate Car law of 1890. The Committee of Citizens knew Plessy would be arrested for violating segregation laws, and wanted to use his civil disobedience as a jumping off point to challenge the original ruling. Plessy was arrested at Press and Royal Streets at the edge of the Marigny.
Plessy challenged his rights under the 13th and 14th amendments, which bar slavery and enforce equal protections, respectively. Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled locally against Plessy, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 1896 after a series of appeals.
Founders of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation came together to educate New Orleanians on the impact of the decision, to preserve historic landmarks, and to connect different New Orleans communities. The Foundation was established by The Crescent City Peace Alliance, former La. Governor Kathleen Blanco, the Louisiana House of Representatives, and the New Orleans City Council.
The next step towards honoring the past came in 2009 when a historic marker was placed at the downtown intersection where Plessy was arrested. A Seventh Ward school named after the activist also followed. In recent months, a movement emerged to grant Homer Plessy the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.
The Medal can also be awarded simply by the POTUS’ decision as Plessy has pointed out in numerous interviews. To that end, Representative Cedric Richmond along with 37other Reps penned a letter to Obama calling for the award. “The courage, commitment and sacrifice of Homer Adolph Plessy opened the gates of the Civil Rights movement across the South,” wrote Richmond.
Of course, honorifics are great, but practical measures are still needed in the civil rights movement. A recent letter from Marc Morial illustrated just how great the gap still is.
Portions of this article previously appeared in NOLA Defender.