Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"Forgotten Men" of Black History 1: Homer Plessy

He's not really "forgotten": His names lives on in a weird kind of "infamy" -- after all he was on the losing side in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case which officially established the segregationist "Separate but Equal" doctrine of race relations in this country that held sway from 1896 until it was reversed and repudiated by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

But just who was Homer Plessy?

Home Plessy was born in New Orleans in 1862 and grew to adulthood in the Reconstruction Era, when black people could sit anywhere they wanted on the streetcars, marry whomever they pleased, and attend integrated schools. But that was with the protection of the US Army, which enforced on a reluctant defeated-but-unbowed South equal rights and protections for former slaves and blacks in general.

But with the Compromise of 1877 -- known forever after as the Corrupt Bargain -- that installed Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House despite the fact that he was the loser in the popular vote (sound familiar, anyone?), Reconstruction ended, the Yankee armies left, and the states of the former Confederacy were free to go back to their segregationist ways. It didn't take long to resegregate the schools, the marriage laws, and especially, in Plessy's case, the trains.

Home Plessy was, according to the official record, 7/8 white and 1/8 black, or, in the parlance of the day, an "octoroon". There is some disagreement over the exact percentages, but for this case, that doesn't matter. What does matter was that he had that infamous "one drop of Negro blood" and was therefore considered to be black. As in Not White. As in You Have to Sit in the Back of the Bus. Or, in Plessy's case, in a whole different train car.

In 1890 the City of New Orleans had, belatedly when considered with the rest of the south, instigated the separate train car rule. The Citizens Committee of New Orleans recruited Plessy to test the law. Because he looked white, he could purchase a ticket for the "whites only" car without any protest. He could even ride the whites only car without fear of being molested, because he looked white:

But of course under the law he was Not White. When the conductor asked him if he was "colored" he admitted that he was and allowed himself to be arrested and charged. The case was a cause célèbre at the time, and culminated in the Plessy v. Ferguson SCOTUS decision that enshrined in US law the racist doctrine of Separate but Equal. Only one justice, John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, from ironically a slaveholding family, dissented from the majority. But man oh man, what a dissent:

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, 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...
If evils will result from the commingling of the two races upon public highways established for the benefit of all, they will be infinitely less than those that will surely come from state legislation regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race. We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of 'equal' accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.
The problem as Harlan pointed out so eloquently, was that the separate facilities for black people were never, in any way, shape or form, equal to those of the whites. I grew up in rural Oklahoma, and attended segregated schools. The white kids had a nice one-story brick neo-colonial school while the black kids -- on the other side of the tracks, naturally -- had an old three-story firetrap that looked like it had already been condemned before the Civil War...

In a weird kind of synchronicity, John Marshall Harlan had a grandson and namesake, John Marshall Harlan II, who also served on the US Supreme Court, from 1955 to 1971. Illness forced him to retire from the court, which then allowed Richard Nixon to appoint William Rehnquist to the bench. And it was the same William Rehquist who had stated in a memo in 1952, when he was clerking for Justice Robert Jackson: "I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed.... To the argument ... that a majority may not deprive a minority of its constitutional right, the answer must be made that while this is sound in theory, in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minority are."

But enough digression. Let's get back to Plessy.

But actually, there isn't much left to tell. After the famous court case, he faded back into relative obscurity, and he lived out the remainder of his life in New Orleans. He died in 1925 at the age of 61. Finally, in 2009, a historical marker was erected at the site of his arrest:


Anonymous said...

I think you have the wrong picture of Homer Plessy. Try doing a Google Image search of Governor Pinchback and you will see the picture you portray as Homer Plessy.

Anonymous said...

Your picture of Homer Plessy is actually a picture of Governor Pinchback. Try doing a Google Image search of Governor Pinchback and you will see the same picture.