Homer Plessy's Posthumous Pardon Finally Recognizes His HeroismRoundup
tags: civil rights, Jim Crow, segregation, Louisiana, Homer Plessy
Keisha N. Blain is an award-winning historian and writer. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and has written extensively on race, gender and politics in national and global perspectives. Her most recent book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.
Homer Plessy, a Creole shoemaker from New Orleans and the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, was pardoned by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday, 130 years after Plessy challenged a Louisiana law that required Black passengers and white passengers to use separate train cars. The case sanctioned the “separate but equal” doctrine and validated state laws that segregated public facilities along the lines of race. The decision effectively legalized Jim Crow segregation for the next 60 years.
As historian Blair L.M. Kelley explains in "Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019": "Plessy v. Ferguson was the manifestation of the African American opposition to segregationist attempts to shame and degrade Black train passengers."
The decision to pardon Homer Plessy is a welcome one, an effort to clear his name and raise national awareness to his story. It is also a symbolic gesture to acknowledge a wrong that took place so long ago. In the proclamation Edwards signed Wednesday, he praised "the heroism and patriotism" of Plessy's "unselfish sacrifice to advocate for and to demand equality and human dignity for all of Louisiana's citizens."
Born a free Black person on March 17, 1862, in New Orleans, Plessy was seven-eighths white and one-eighth Black. He could easily pass for white.
During the 1880s, Plessy, a civil rights activist, served as vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club, which set out to reform New Orleans' public education system. In 1890, Plessy amplified his political activism in response to Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, which segregated public facilities. According to the new law, “all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State, shall provide equal but separate accommodation for the white and colored race.”
To challenge the new law on the grounds that it violated the 13th and the 14th Amendments, New Orleans activists of color in Comité des Citoyens (the Citizens’ Committee) devised a plan for Plessy to board a train on June 7, 1892, and intentionally sit in the “whites only” section. Plessy, then 30, who could easily pass for white, proved to be a valuable asset for the civil rights organization.
The Citizens’ Committee coordinated with the East Louisiana Railroad Co. to ensure that Plessy would be caught. On the train ride from New Orleans to nearby Covington, Plessy occupied a seat in the “whites only” car and when he refused an order to move to the “colored only” section, he was removed, arrested, charged and later convicted.
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