In 1890, Louisiana passed a statute called the Separate Car Act,
which stated "that all railway companies carrying passengers in their
coaches in this state, shall provide equal but separate accommodations
for the white, and colored races, by providing two or more passenger
coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches
by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations. . . . " The
penalty for sitting in the wrong compartment was a fine of $25 or 20
days in jail.
The Plessy case was carefully orchestrated by both the Citizens'
Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, a group
of blacks who raised $3000 to challenge the Act, and 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 designated for whites only. The railroad officials,
following through on the arrangement, arrested Plessy and charged him
with violating the Separate Car Act. Well known advocate for black
rights Albion Tourgee, a white lawyer, agreed to argue the case without
In the criminal district court for the parish of Orleans, Plessy
argued that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist
within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the
jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State
wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall
abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;
nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property,
without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its
jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
John Howard Ferguson was the judge presiding over Plessy's criminal
case in the district court. He had previously declared the Separate Car
Act "unconstitutional on trains that traveled through several states."
However, in Plessy's case he decided that the state could choose to
regulate railroad companies that operated solely within the state of
Louisiana. Therefore, Ferguson found Plessy guilty and declared the
Separate Car Act constitutional.
Plessy appealed the case to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, which
affirmed the decision that the Louisiana law as constitutional. Plessy
petitioned for a writ of error from the Supreme Court of the United
States. Judge John Howard Ferguson was named in the case brought before
the United States Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson)
because he had been named in the petition to the Louisiana Supreme Court
and 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 to the Constitution provide?
If you were Plessy's lawyer, how would you justify your claim
that the "Separate Car Act" violates the 13th and 14th amendments?
In State of Louisiana v. Plessy, Judge Ferguson
decided that the state could choose to regulate railroad companies that
operated within the state even though he had previously declared the
"Separate Car Act" unconstitutional on trains that traveled through
several states. If an act is declared unconstitutional in one case,
shouldn't it be held unconstitutional in all cases? How do you think
Judge Ferguson could legally justify making this distinction?
Is it possible for two races to remain separated while striving
for equality? Are separation and equality compatible? Why or why not?
Can you think of an example or situation where separation does not mean inequality?