Man whose arrest resulted in “separated but same” is pardoned


NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Louisiana’s governor on Wednesday posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy, the black man whose arrest for refusing to leave a white-only railroad car resulted in a Supreme Court ruling in 1892 ruling “Separated but Equal” cemented for half a century in US law.

The state pardon panel last year recommended pardoning Plessy, who got on the train car as a member of a small civil rights group in hopes of repealing a state law separating trains. Instead, the protest led to what Plessy v. Ferguson’s well-known judgment of 1896, which for decades only cemented white rooms in public accommodations such as transport, hotels and schools.

At a ceremony near where Plessy was arrested, Governor John Bel Edwards said he was “ungrateful” to restore Plessy’s “legacy of the rightness of his cause … unsullied by the falseness of his conviction.”

Keith Plessy, whose great-great-grandfather was Plessy’s cousin, called the event “a truly blessed day for our ancestors … and for children not yet born”.

Since the November pardon committee vote, I’ve felt like my feet aren’t touching the ground because my ancestors are carrying me, ”he said.

Judge Henry Billings Brown wrote in the 7-1 decision: “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish differences based on physical differences.”

Judge John Marshall Harlan was the only dissenting vote, writing that he believed the verdict “will prove in time to be as pernicious as this tribunal’s decision on Dred Scott” – an 1857 decision that no Black Person said whoever was enslaved or descended from a slave could ever become a US citizen.

The ceremony began with cellist Kate Dillingham – a descendant of deviant justice – playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while the audience sang along.

The Plessy v Ferguson ruling, which allowed racial segregation throughout American life, was considered law of the country until the 1954 Supreme Court unanimously overturned it in Brown against the Board of Education. In both cases it has been argued that the racial segregation laws violated the right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Brown’s decision resulted in widespread desegregation in public schools and ultimately the repeal of the Jim Crow laws that discriminated against black Americans.

Plessy was a member of the Citizens Committee, a New Orleans group that tried to overcome laws that drove back advances in equality after the Civil War.

The 30-year-old shoemaker lacked the business, political and educational achievements of most of the other members, wrote Keith Weldon Medley in the book “We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson ”. But his fair skin – in court files he was described as someone whose “one eighth of African blood” was “not recognizable”, positioned him for the wagon protest.

“His only quality was to be white enough to get on the train and black enough to be arrested for it,” wrote Medley.

Eight months after the verdict on his case, Plessy pleaded guilty and was fined $ 25 for buying 25 cents a pound of round steak and 10 pounds of potatoes.

Keith Plessy said the donations raised by the committee paid off the fine and other legal expenses. But Plessy was forgotten and never returned to shoemaking.

He alternated between manual labor, warehouse worker, and clerk before becoming a collector for the black People’s Life Insurance Company, Medley wrote. He died in 1925 with the conviction on his file.

Relatives of Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, the judge who oversaw his case at the Orleans District Criminal Court, became friends decades later and started a civil rights education nonprofit.

Descendants of the Citizens’ Committee and descendants of the local judge were also present at the pardon.

The purpose of the pardon “is not to erase what happened 125 years ago, but to acknowledge injustice,” said Phoebe Ferguson, the judge’s great-great-granddaughter.

Other recent efforts have recognized Plessy’s role in history, including a 2018 New Orleans City Council vote to rename a section of the street where he attempted to board the train in his honor.

The five blocks of Homer Plessy Way run through the campus of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public school where the court ceremony was held. Cars on the city’s public Belt Railroad served as the backdrop for the signing of the pardon, held just blocks from the spot where Plessy was arrested.

The governor’s office described this as the first pardon under Louisiana’s Avery Alexander Act of 2006, which allows pardons on those convicted under discriminatory laws.

Former state Senator Edwin Murray said he originally wrote the law to automatically pardon anyone convicted of violating a coding discrimination law. He said he did it voluntarily after people arrested for civil rights protests told him they viewed the arrests as badges of honor.

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