“There is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
— Justice John Marshall Harlan, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
“I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today because the ancestors are carrying me. Homer Plessy will have his way today.”
— Keith Plessy
Homer Plessy was a man of complicated background and simple mission. He was an intentional litigant, and unintentional part of history. And more than that, after 130 long years, he is a man without a criminal record.
Plessy was born in New Orleans during the death throes of slavery. His date of birth is sometimes listed as 1862 and sometimes as 1863, meaning that he was born either just before or just after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But Plessy was born free, the child of immigrants from France and Haiti. His paternal grandfather was a Frenchman and his paternal grandmother a free Person of Color, making him a person of mixed race under post-Civil War Louisiana law.
The child of a carpenter, Plessy’s father died when he was just a child, and his mother remarried to a U.S. Postal Service clerk who did double duty as a cobbler. Plessy took up his father’s occupation and became a shoemaker himself. A part of the city’s Creole population, Plessy spoke French natively and also worked, at times, as an insurance agent.
Plessy not only followed his step-father in trade, he also was inspired by his stepfather’s membership in the civil rights oriented Unification Movement. Intelligent and well liked, Plessy was first involved in the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, which opposed segregated schools in New Orleans, and then became one of the youngest members of New Orleans’ Comité des Citoyens, a group similarly focused on equal rights for all citizens. The Comité had a specific task in mind for Plessy, though. As author Keith Medley’s writes in his excellent 2012 book “We As Freemen,” “his one attribute was being white enough to gain access to the train and black enough to be arrested for doing so. This shoemaker sought to make an impact on society that was larger than simply making its shoes.”
To test Louisiana’s Separate Car act, the Comité arranged a specific test. They informed the rail company that Plessy would be riding the whites-only car, and hired a private detective to arrest him for doing so. Plessy was arrested and charged, spent a single night in jail before posting bond, and then was tried by local New Orleans Judge John Howard Ferguson. Ferguson rejected Plessy’s constitutional argument, and Plessy was convicted and ordered to pay a fine of $25, the equivalent of about $750 today.
The entire point of the exercise by the Comité was to get the conviction so that it could be appealed and the law tested in federal court. But between the planning of the incident in late 1891 and the case making its way to the U.S Supreme Court in 1896, four seats on the High Court changed hands, and the likelihood of success dwindled.
When Plessy v. Ferguson was finally decided, it was not the victory for equal rights that had been hoped for, but rather a validation of “separate but equal” policies that would remain in place for another six decades. It stands today as one of the most maligned decisions in Supreme Court history.
Once the case was decided, Plessy paid his $25 fine, went back to his family life, succeeded in business ventures, and was generally an upstanding citizen in New Orleans. He died in 1925 at the age of 62 or 63. But his conviction stood until Jan. 5. That’s when descendants of Plessy, and of Judge Ferguson, joined Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in a ceremony in New Orleans to officially grant a gubernatorial pardon to Homer Plessy, 130 years after his conviction and fine — proving once again that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.