In 1890, Louisiana passed a law called the Separate Car Act. This law
said that railroad companies must provide separate but equal train cars
for whites and blacks. Blacks had to sit with blacks and whites had to
sit with whites. This is called segregation. Anyone who broke this law would have to pay $25 or go to jail for 20 days.
Two parties wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the Separate
Car Act. A group of black citizens who raised money to overturn the law
worked together with the East Louisiana Railroad Company, which sought
to terminate the Act largely for monetary reasons. They chose a
30-year-old shoemaker named Homer Plessy, a citizen of the United States
who was one-eighth black and a resident of the state of Louisiana. On
June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class passage from New Orleans to
Covington, Louisiana and sat in the railroad car for "White"
passengers. The railroad officials knew Plessy was coming and arrested
him for violating the Separate Car Act. Well known advocate for black
rights Albion Tourgee, a white lawyer, agreed to argue the case for
Plessy argued in court that the Separate Car Act violated the
13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment banned slavery and the 14th Amendment requires that the
government treat people equally. John Howard Ferguson, the judge
hearing the case, had stated in a previous court decision that the
Separate Car Act was unconstitutional if
applied to trains running outside of Louisiana. In this case, however,
he declared that the law was constitutional for trains running within
the state and found Plessy guilty.
Plessy appealed the case to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, which
affirmed the decision that the Louisiana law was constitutional. Plessy
then took his case, Plessy v. Ferguson, to the Supreme
Court of the United States, the highest court in the country. Judge
John Howard Ferguson was named in the case because he had been named in
the petition to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, not because he was a party to the initial lawsuit.
Questions to Consider
What law did Homer Plessy violate? How did Plessy violate this law?
What rights do the 13th and 14th Amendments provide? Why
did Plessy believe that the Separate Car Act violated these rights?
Judge Ferguson decided that the state could make laws for railroad
companies that traveled within the state but not for those that traveled
between states. On what basis can Judge Ferguson treat these two
What claim did Plessy make to the Louisiana State Supreme Court? How
did his claim reflect on his argument that his 14th Amendment
rights were violated?
Do you think it is possible for blacks and whites to be separate and
equal? Why or why not? If so, describe a situation where people can be
separate, but equal.