Although not specifically written in the decision, Plessy set the
precedent that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were
constitutional as long as they were "equal." The "separate but equal"
doctrine was quickly extended to cover many areas of public life, such
as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools.
The Supreme Court of the United States determined that if legislation
makes distinctions based on race, but does not deprive anyone of rights
or privileges, it is constitutional. The Court seemed to believe that
the common practice of separation was an inconvenience, not something
that abridged the rights of African Americans. The Court also presumed
that legislation was powerless to do away with racial instincts or to
abolish distinctions based on physical differences.
Think about the following situations. Each situation offers separate
accommodations for the people involved. Are those accommodations equal?
Do you think the Supreme Court of the United States considered all
possible situations when they rendered their decision in Plessy v. Ferguson? Discuss each situation with your classmates.
A black woman is thirsty, so she walks over to the water fountains.
There is one fountain for blacks and one for whites. The black woman
uses the fountain for whites because the other one is out of order.
A black man has been traveling for many hours. He stops at a diner to
eat and use the restroom. This diner only serves whites. In order to
eat, the black man must travel another two hours to another diner that
serves blacks. The black man cannot wait two hours to use the restroom,
so he uses the diner's restroom despite the posted signs.
A white man is not allowed to have his colored attendant with him in
the same train coach even though the white man's health condition
requires constant supervision. The colored attendant ignores the rules
and sits beside his employer in the coach for white passengers.
A black seven-year-old girl must walk two miles to the nearest school
for blacks even though there is a school two blocks away. The school
two blocks away is only for white students. The girl's parents worry
about their daughter walking such a long distance to and from school