Edwards’s press office said the governor was traveling “but looks forward to receiving and reviewing the recommendation of the Board upon his return.”
When Keith Plessy, a descendant of Homer Plessy, heard the news, he felt like his feet “weren’t touching the ground.” He and his friend Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of the judge in the case, hopped in the car and were driving across New Orleans to the house of another friend — Homer Plessy biographer Keith Weldon Medley — to share the news when they spoke with The Washington Post.
“Not only is this 125 years of long-time-coming,” Keith Plessy said, “but the way things have happened at such a rapid pace just lets you know that [Plessy and the civil rights group he was working with] were right.”
He credited New Orleans’s new district attorney, Jason Williams, who is Black, with initiating the pardon effort.
The New Orleans in which Plessy was raised was a much freer place than the city he encountered as an adult, according to Medley in his book “We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson.” Born in 1862, Plessy grew up during Reconstruction, when federal troops occupied the city and enforced equal rights. Black residents could vote, run for office, sit anywhere on a streetcar and, for a short period, attend integrated public schools.
But Reconstruction ended in 1877, and things changed. Segregation laws began popping up all over the South, including the law separating races on train cars.
By 1892, Plessy was a shoemaker, married and member of several education reform and civil rights groups. That’s when leaders of one of those groups, the Citizens’ Committee, picked Plessy for an important job.
“He did not have [the committee leaders’] stellar political histories, literary prowess, business acumen, or law degrees,” Medley wrote. “Indeed, his one attribute was being White enough to gain access to the train and Black enough to be arrested for doing so.” There are no known photographs of Plessy, but contemporaries described him as appearing to be White.
On June 7, 1892, the 30-year-old purchased a first-class train ticket on the 4:15 p.m. train from New Orleans to nearby Covington, La. Then he boarded the first-class car, with its mahogany interior, brass lamps and plush seats.
According to one account in a White-run newspaper, when the train pulled out of the station, the conductor asked to see Plessy’s ticket, and, after a moment, inquired, “Are you a colored man?”
“Yes,” Plessy replied.
“Then you will have to retire to the colored car,” the conductor said.
(Another version, by the Black newspaper New Orleans Crusader and recounted in Steven Luxenberg’s “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation,” has the conductor asking, “Are you a White man?” To which Plessy responded, “No.”)
Plessy told him he was an American citizen, he had paid for his ticket, and he intended to enjoy what he had paid for all the way to Covington, according to Medley. The train stopped, the conductor flagged down a detective — who had been hired by the Citizen’s Committee to be there — and Plessy was arrested. Within hours, the Citizens’ Committee bailed him out and released a statement to the media.
The next day, the headline in the New Orleans Daily Crescent read: “IN THE WRONG CAR: A Snuff-Colored Descendant of Ham Kicks Against the ‘Jim Crow’ Law, And Takes the Jail End of It Rather Than Comply With Its Distinctive Provisions.”
The judge who got the case, John Howard Ferguson, delayed a trial and instead ruled on the constitutionality of the state law Plessy was charged with violating. Plessy’s attorneys appealed, and the case slowly made its way to the Supreme Court.
Nearly four years later, on May 18, 1896, the court issued its 7-1 ruling against Plessy. (One justice did not vote because he had left town for a family emergency.) And though the justice who wrote the opinion, Henry Billings Brown, never actually wrote the words “separate but equal,” the decision helped establish that infamous precedent.
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it,” Brown wrote. “The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition.”
The idea that services for African Americans were comparable to those for Whites was ridiculous on its face. In the decades of Jim Crow that followed, there was no Black-only train car with mahogany walls and brass lamps, no Black-only theater seat except in the balcony, and no gleaming Black-only public school with an equal budget to the White one.
Plessy faded from the national landscape, but he continued to lead in his working-class Black community, according to Medley. He died in 1925 with the conviction still on his record. The “separate but equal” doctrine stood until the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
But that isn’t the whole story, Keith Plessy said Friday, and he quoted the determined statement the Citizens’ Committee released after the 1896 decision: “We as freemen still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred.”
“It started an explosion of activism,” Phoebe Ferguson said, calling New Orleans the “cradle” of the civil rights movement.
Plessy and Ferguson were hopeful that Edwards would approve the pardon and that “this could be something for him to hang his hat on.”
After Medley introduced them in 2004, Plessy and Ferguson formed the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation. Together, they have worked to have five historical markers honoring Homer Plessy added to the New Orleans landscape.
But as historian Blair L.M. Kelley notes in “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” that recognition doesn’t — and can’t — include a historical marker at Plessy’s old address on Claiborne Avenue. His home was demolished in 1968 as part of an urban renewal project that uprooted a Black community to make way for Interstate 10.