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Separate, but Equal": The Story of Supreme Injustice

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 28, 2022 3:03 am

Separate, but Equal": The Story of Supreme Injustice

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 28, 2022 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, on May 18, 1896, the decision on a case brought before the Supreme Court would solidify segregation for over five and a half decades. Homer Plessy's descendant, Keith Plessy, tells us the story of the Plessy v. Ferguson case, as well as what he and Judge Ferguson's descendant are doing about it now.

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Go to And as you know, we like to bring you events that shaped our country and some for the better and some for the worst. And through it all, there have been people fighting, fighting for the promises made in our Constitution. Sometimes the battles we fought have been lost. Today, Robbie brings us the story of the Plessy v. Ferguson case and a Supreme Court decision that solidified segregation for over 50 years. It's told by a descendant of Homer Plessy himself, Keith Plessy.

Here's the story. Separate but equal. It's a phrase that haunted African-Americans for years. The right to separate individuals, restaurants, businesses, train cars, buses, based on the color of one's skin. Separate but equal was not a policy left over from the Civil War. It wasn't until more than 30 years after the Civil War that segregation became the law of the land.

But not all states fell in at the same time. And in New Orleans, Louisiana, there was a man named Homer Plessy who would, with the help of the country, fight for the equality that Black citizens had tasted for a brief moment. My name is Keith Plessy. I am a fourth generation descendant of Homer Plessy, plaintiff in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. Homer Plessy was born in 1863, March 17th, the same year that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He grew up in a turbulent time. Civil War was when he was an infant. Post-Civil War was his younger life where he experienced Reconstruction in Louisiana.

Being protected by the Union soldiers, they were able to attend the same schools as white citizens. There were three additions to the U.S. Constitution. Amendments, the 13th, the 14th, and the 15th Amendments. Those amendments came during Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment equaled protection of the laws. And the 15th Amendment was the right to vote.

So those three things occurred during Reconstruction. And Homer Plessy was a young man experiencing those changes. So it was developing him to not only enjoy the freedoms that came through Reconstruction, but to defend those rights when they were being taken away. And during his childhood, many protesters and activists of his time set the pace for him when he became a young man.

Homer Plessy's father died at a young age, and Homer Plessy was about six years old when his father passed away. His mother remarried into a family called the Duports. Victor Duport was part of the Unification Movement, and Victor Duport's father-in-law was part of the Unification Movement. That movement combined white and black workers who protested for equal pay, and they got it during Reconstruction. However, when Homer Plessy became a young man, those rights were slowly deteriorating.

And Homer Plessy attended these meetings with his stepfather, Victor Duport. And he was familiar with the Citizens Committee, but he was not a member of the Citizens Committee. That was a group of 18 lawyers, businessmen, prominent citizens, mixed race organization. There were some white citizens, some African American citizens, long in the battle for freedom.

I think their history goes back. Abolition long before the Civil War. The American Revolution also participated in the Battle of New Orleans. The Citizens Committee had a deep background in fighting for freedom. A lot of those ancestors of the Citizens Committee who fought in the Plessy v. Ferguson case at the turn of the century were very much involved in the development of America. Homer Plessy himself had a relative that was decorated in the American Revolution. His great-grandfather was a gentleman by the name of Matthew Duvall. Matthew Duvall was decorated four times in battle in the American Revolution, which not being recognized as the American Revolution because Louisiana was still the Louisiana Territory during the American Revolution. So his history goes back.

The right to fight for his freedom was born with the country, and it was in his DNA to battle for his rights. When 1890 rolled around and Louisiana decided to jump into this segregation chain of laws that were spreading across the South, Florida had adopted its segregation laws on trains. Alabama was before Louisiana. And when Louisiana adopted its separate car law, it was 1890.

And by 1891, a challenge was being presented to them to change that law by the Citizens Committee here in New Orleans. The Withdrawal Car Act, or Separate Car Act, was a law passed in Louisiana that required railroad companies to provide equal but separate train car accommodations for blacks and whites. But Homer's case was not the first to challenge separate car laws.

Another man who was white passing, Daniel Daydude, boarded a first-class car traveling from New Orleans to Montgomery, Alabama. When Homer Plessy was selected, the state law was being challenged. The interstate law allowed trains outside the state of Louisiana, so it didn't apply. Separate car law didn't apply to those trains. But the trains that traveled within the state of Louisiana, the ones who were restricted by race in each car. Well then, if you look at the Louisiana law as it was written, you had a first-class car that was designated for white citizens and a second-class car that was designated for anyone of color. In the system of the East Louisiana Railroad, they would have preferred to sell all first-class tickets as opposed to a separate car that had to be set up. Say, for instance, the white car was not full. One black citizen comes up to ride the train. You have to prepare another car for this guy, and you have a schedule to meet when your train is taken off. It's going from one area to another. The delay of that process by changing the car, having to add a car to the train, took off a lot of time from the schedule, which resulted in poor service. So, you know, those who wanted to exercise segregation on those trains had to suffer being late for their appointments.

So, it didn't make sense. And you're listening to Keith Plessy, and what a story this is, and anyone who's ever read the case. And you can actually just type in Plessy v. Ferguson and read the opinion, because it's astonishing. And when we come back, we're going to continue with Keith Plessy's voice, and again, a direct relative, a descendant of Homer Plessy. And my goodness, it's a name you've heard, but it's a real-life person, and that's why we love telling you these stories. These were real-life people, and we're going to continue these stories. These were real-life people, and without them doing what they did, things wouldn't have changed. And it took a lot of courage to do what he did.

When we come back, more of the story of Plessy v. Ferguson, as told by Keith Plessy, here on Our American Stories. Passing the ball is fun. The Frito-Lay Pass the Ball challenge is more fun. Frito-Lay, the official USA snack of the FIFA World Cup 2022, is giving you the chance to win custom soccer swag and amazing prizes by joining their Pass the Ball challenge. To enter, just scan the QR code on specially marked bags of Lay's, Cheetos, and Doritos, and look for the Golden World Soccer Ball. Be part of history by adding your picture to the Golden Ball. Explore the ever-growing soccer community, find friends on the ball, and receive a one-of-a-kind collectible NFT.

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To learn more visit And we're back with our American stories and the story of the U.S. Supreme Court case probably the most infamous. The 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case. When we last left off, Homer Plessy was working with an organization to actually get caught so they could start the legal battle that would land him at the Supreme Court. When one looked at Plessy, they couldn't tell if he was white or black. And this is part of how they hope to challenge the separation of individuals into white cars and black cars.

Here's Homer's descendant again, Keith Plessy, continuing with this story. Now that law also created another problem, which was, how do you tell that a person's black or a person's white? In New Orleans, you had so many citizens who appeared to be white, but they were actually black. And it was hard for the conductors to determine the race of someone until today is still a problem because, you know, I have a personal take on that, which I say that one of the most ridiculous rules that were developed back then was called the one-drop rule, that if you had one drop of African blood in your line, your genealogy line, that you were considered black. And in Homer Plessy's case, one of the most ridiculous things that they were saying was that he was one-eighth black because of his great-grandmother, Agnes, who was a slave. So he was considered an octoroon. You know, I mean, that's kind of ridiculous to try to have a meter to measure someone's race.

You know, it just, it went into so many ridiculous that, you know, rather than being recognized as a human being as a person, you had to talk about somebody's color, their skin, you know, just didn't make any sense to me. The Citizens Committee had already cut a deal with the East Louisiana Railroad to work on this plan to change the law. So when Homer Plessy approached that train station, he was already expected to arrive. He purchased his ticket without conflict.

He entered the train, the train car which was designated for whites only, and he sat down. Well, the conductor and the arresting officer were also hired by the Citizens Committee and the East Louisiana Railroad to arrest Homer Plessy, take him off that train so that they can challenge the law. He was bailed out because there was, the bail was set so he could be released. The initial criminal case was overseen by Judge John Howard Ferguson, and he ruled that Louisiana was able to regulate their intrastate travel in whatever manner they deemed fit. After the verdict was passed, the Citizens Committee stepped in and appealed the case up to the state Supreme Court. That result of the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was challenged in U.S. Supreme Court by Homer Plessy and the Citizens Committee. And that's when it became Plessy versus Ferguson, and it became a national case. What the Citizens Committee did to raise money to represent Homer Plessy, I think the phrase, if I can get it correct, was the liberality of the rich and the might of the poor combined.

So you had a list around the United States of people who sent a dollar, who sent $10. Some people sent 50 cents, but everybody combined created the fund to represent Homer Plessy in U.S. Supreme Court. And it was a national representation. It was fought for about four years.

However, it was unsuccessful, as history would write it. The decision was separate but equal. It became the law of the land. But in that instance, a new era of civil rights pioneers were developing around the scene of that case, a fight that continued to actually change the law. After separate but equal was adopted as the law of the land, many other areas that were not segregated became segregated. So it brought about a backward step to America that I think it was a crippling situation, probably one of the worst, if not the worst decisions at a point in American history where we could have actually turned the tables on the inequalities that the country was producing at the same time with this narrative of equal justice for all. It was not being practiced at that time.

And it was given teeth. Jim Crow gave segregation teeth to bite into American society in every facet possible. I mean, you had drinking fountains. Parks didn't allow you to come into certain areas. Even when I was a kid, there was a park that exercised weekends for white kids, and black kids had to squeeze in a little time in the park during the week after school. And the weekends where everybody was out of school, we couldn't go in that park.

I was born in 1957, so that's a long time after 1896. And it was still affecting my life as a kid growing up in New Orleans. Eventually, Brown v. Board of Education changed Homer Plessy's case, the Plessy decision, changed the landscape of civil rights law at that point. But transportation still was not changed until maybe the 60s when you had the Civil Rights Act signed. There were still buses being attacked.

So the transportation issue was not solved. It was education in Brown v. Board. I remember as a child in elementary school being told that I was related to Homer Plessy. One of my teachers, who I can remember, Miss Waters, she brought the phone book into the room. And while we were talking about Plessy v. Ferguson, she looked at my name, stood me up in front of the class, and told the kids, Keith's last name is spelled just like Homer Plessy's. But it wasn't until much later that Keith realized how closely related he was to Homer.

1996, when I met author Keith Weldon Medley. And this gentleman was doing research on Homer Plessy, who he had done extensive research. And his book was being developed.

It's called We as Free Men, Plessy v. Ferguson, The Fight Against Segregation. And his book entailed the genealogy of Homer Plessy's family. And that's when I really found out my connection to Homer Plessy to my great grandfather. And also, at the same time, he was doing research on Judge John Howard Ferguson. And not long after, Phoebe Ferguson, Judge Ferguson's great-great-granddaughter, and Keith Plessy, whose great-grandfather was Homer Plessy's cousin, would meet. He invited us to his book signing, which we had never seen or known of each other before then.

And at his book signing, we met for the first time. And when I first met Ms. Ferguson, she shook her hand, and she began to apologize for slavery, segregation, and anything that ever went wrong during racial relations. And she said, you know, I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to do that. And I kind of interrupted her and said, hey, it's not our fault that those things happen. We can do something different. It's no longer Plessy v. Ferguson.

It's Plessy and Ferguson. So we became friends at that instant. And we've been friends ever since. And it took us from 2004 to 2009, when we actually developed the foundation. We signed our letters of incorporation at a restaurant called Cafe Reconcile. When we signed our papers there, we didn't realize that on July 9th, we were signing those papers.

The 14th Amendment, it was adopted to the US Constitution on July the 9th, 1868. And great job as always to Robbie and the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation is doing a lot to educate folks. Together, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson are spreading their message that their mutual history can be a tool to create unity and understanding. I wanted to read you the lone dissenting opinion. Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose not so much to exclude white people from railroad cars occupied by blacks, but as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white people. Our constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved and that is Justice Harlan dissenting in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

Plessy v. Ferguson is told by Keith Plessy, the story here on Our American Stories. Passing the ball is fun. The Frito-Lay Pass the Ball Challenge is more fun. Join Frito-Lay, the official USA snack of the FIFA World Cup 2022 for their Pass the Ball Challenge. Look for the Golden World Soccer Ball and explore the ever-growing community. Then pass the ball to friends for a chance to score custom swag.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-11-28 04:39:38 / 2022-11-28 04:48:13 / 9

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