The perniciousness of Plessy v. Ferguson

“Separate but equal.” These three words carry the burden of an oppressive period in American history, and we have long known their lie: Separate can never be equal; separate is inherently unequal.

Yet Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous Supreme Court case synonymous with “separate but equal,” drew remarkably little attention when the justices announced their near-unanimous decision on May 18, 1896. It was the latest in a string of legal defeats for men and women of color who had been resisting separation in public accommodations since before the Civil War. And though today legal scholars treat the Plessy ruling as a turning point in the American narrative of race, few among us know details of the case.


Proof? In the spirit of Black History Month, a time for exploring lesser understood stories from America’s past, let’s try a simple quiz:

  • Who was Plessy, and what was his color?
  • What was Plessy accused of doing, and where?
  • How many of the seven justices who ruled in favor of legal segregation came from the North and how many from the South?

Before my research for a book on the roots of racial separation and the Plessy ruling, I could not answer even these basic questions about this seminal case. Here are the answers, plus a bit more of this remarkable story:


A look back at Plessy v. Ferguson, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history. The court upheld a Louisiana law that required racial separation on passenger trains, preserving and furthering segregation ("separate but equal") throughout the nation well into the 20th Century.

Homer Plessy, 29 and married, was closer to white than black. He was recruited specifically because of his fair skin to test the constitutionality of a new Louisiana law requiring “equal but separate accommodations for white and colored passengers” on trains operating in the state. His lawyers wanted to argue that passengers like Plessy — whose family tree featured every shade of the New Orleans spectrum — made it impossible for a conductor to identify his race and enforce the law.

A committee dominated by French-speaking Creoles in New Orleans — largely professionals from the city’s mixed-race society whose families had never been enslaved — had arranged for his arrest in June 1892 for sitting in a train car reserved for whites. The railroad company, wanting to avoid the expense of an extra car, was a willing partner in the test. Plessy's legal team engineered a clever appeal of the law's validity, delaying any conviction. Their briefs to the Supreme Court focused on the Louisiana law as a violation of the 14th amendment, and especially its equal protection clause.

Seven Supreme Court justices joined in ruling that equal but separate accommodations were acceptable as an exercise of Louisiana's "police powers" to keep peace and order. Six were Northerners. The majority opinion was the work of Henry Billings Brown, whose young life included mentors involved in the anti-slavery fight. The lone dissent came from John Marshall Harlan, who came from a Kentucky slaveholding family and had run for Congress as a proslavery candidate at the age of 25, just before the Civil War. (How these two justices evolved to reach such seemingly contradictory destinations is a major strand of the book’s narrative.)

Baltimore author Steve Luxenberg on Wednesday picked up a prestigious plum ¿ a 2016 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Award and $30,000 to finish his second book, "Separate," which looks at the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case.

History frequently shows us that turning points rarely rely on single moments, single actions, single decisions. Questions about racial equality confounded the country’s founders, who embedded their divisions into the Constitution in 1789. We grapple with those questions still, in every new dispute involving voting rights and immigration policy, affirmative action and school funding, criminal justice and capital punishment, police confrontations and hiring practices.

And indeed, it took decades for the full perniciousness of the Plessy ruling to be recognized, which occurred only after much damage was already done: Separation had spread to every corner of the South (and parts of the North), and segregation had invaded every public space from water fountains to waiting rooms to swimming pools; a half-century of lynchings had gone unchecked and unprosecuted; and multiple court rulings had accumulated relying on Plessy as precedent. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Supreme Court finally reversed itself and renounced “separate but equal” in the school segregation case known as Brown v. Board of Education, and even then, years would pass before real headway was made on integration.

Under the guidance of Charles Bethea, the new chief curator, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture will be looking into current controversies raised by the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore, declaring 2016 the year of the black male and planning an exhibit on black-on-black crime. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)

We have left Plessy behind, but not its reverberations or its lessons. Racial progress in America has never come quickly or easily. As Justice Harlan said in his Plessy dissent, “The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.”

Strong words from a wise justice. Words that seem as relevant today as in 1896.

Steve Luxenberg, a long-time Washington Post editor who previously worked at The Sun, is the author of “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation,” published this week by W.W. Norton. He lives in Baltimore. Tomorrow at 7 p.m., he will discuss the book with Robert M. Bell, former chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St. The event is co-sponsored by the Pratt Library and OSI-Baltimore.

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