Homer Plessy: Train Incident and Supreme Court Case
Before introducing the actual court case, it is important to acknowledge the American Citizens Equal Rights Association and their dedication to protesting the Separate Car Act. In response to Louisiana’s adoption of the law in 1890, the American Citizens Equal Rights Association was interested in testing the constitutionality of the new state legislation.
The first attempt to challenge the law was with 21-year-old Daniel Desdunes. The plan was simple, have an African American passenger buy a first-class ticket to sit in the designated white railway car, and then arguing that the arrest of the black passenger was a violation of the 14th Amendment (1).
Because in the trial Desdunes was traveling between state lines, purchasing a ticket from New Orleans to Mobile, Louisiana state legislature could not be enforced within another state. Therefore, the case was dismissed.
Interesting enough, the ruling for Desdunes case was based on a precedent of a recent Louisiana Supreme Court Case, Abbott v. Hicks, in which a train conductor was arrested and tried for seating an African American in the designated white passenger car, traveling from Texas to Louisiana. The Abbott v. Hicks ruling decided that the Separate Car Act could be enforced beyond state lines.
The dismissal of the case led the American Citizens Equal Rights Association to do another test, this time using the white-passing Homer Plessy. Homer Plessy was one-eighth black, classified as an octoroon during that time period. With light enough skin complexion to pass as a white man, Plessy was the perfect subject for the American Citizens Equal Rights Association’s next passenger trial.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy sat in the designated white passenger railroad car, that he earlier purchased a ticket for, and awaited his departure, this time traveling within the state of Louisiana. Intentionally as a part of the trial to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, the train conductor was alerted that a light, white-passing, black passenger seated in the white car. The conductor approached Plessy before departure, asking if Plessy was in fact black. Plessy responded, admitting he was in fact black. The conductor instructed Plessy to move to the colored section railroad car, but Plessy refused arguing he purchased a first-class ticket and making that him move was a violation of his rights as an American citizen. As a result of his refusal, Plessy was arrested, jailed, and charged with violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act. (1)
Plessy’s legal team, provided by the American Citizens Equal Rights Association, argued before the district court that the Separate Car Act that Plessy was charged with being in violation of was unconstitutional, and filed for a plea that the court did not have the jurisdiction to decide this case. Although Plessy lost his case, he filed for an appeal in the Louisiana State Supreme Court losing again. Another appeal was filed, and the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“That it does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, is too clear for argument.”
– Justice Brown on why it is not in violation of the 13th Amendment (2)
The Supreme Court references the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 as a precedent, that ruled that state rights are different than federal rights, and the Constitution can only legally uphold federal civil rights. Interesting enough Louisiana was the subject of this case as well.
“' Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”
– Justice Brown on why it is not in violation of the 14th Amendment (2)
Despite a solid defense that the Separate Car Act was a violation of the 13th or 14th Amendment, all but one supreme court justices ruled against Plessy, reasoning that the fourteenth amendment does not restrict “distinctions based on color" (2).
Urofsky, Melvin I. “Homer Plessy and Jim Crow.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Aug. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law/Homer-Plessy-and-Jim-Crow.
"Plessy v. Ferguson." Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/163us537. Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.
“Negro Expulsion from Railway Car, Philadelphia.” Negro Expulsion from Railway Car, Philadelphia, The Illustrated London News, 1856.
Thomas, Brook. Plessy V. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. Print.