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Fri Jun 7, 2024, 09:10 AM Jun 7

On This Day: Civil rights group orchestrates test of "white" RR cars - loses at Supreme Court - June 7, 1892

(edited from Wikipedia)
["Whites-only" railroad travel becomes the legal basis for segregated schools]

Orchestrating a test case

In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which required separate accommodation for black and white people on railroads, including separate railway cars. A group of 18 prominent black, creole of color, and white creole New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) to challenge the law. Many staff members of The New Orleans Crusader, a black Republican newspaper, were among the group's members, including publisher Louis A. Martinet, writer Rodolphe Desdunes, and managing editor L. J. Joubert, who served as president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club at the same time Plessy was vice president.

[Plan called for someone who could pass as white]

The group contacted attorney and civil rights advocate Albion W. Tourgée, who agreed to help them bring a test case to court in order to force the judiciary to determine the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws. In his correspondence with Martinet, Tourgée suggested finding a plaintiff who had "not more than one-eight colored blood" and could pass as white. The attorney hoped that by selecting a person of ambiguous racial identity, he might exploit the Louisiana legislature's failure to define race and to force the court to consider the inconclusiveness of scientific evidence on definitive racial categories. In court, he later argued that a man of one-eighth African ancestry may not even know to which race he belongs, so a railroad employee would be even less qualified to "decide the question of race" and determine in what car a mixed-race individual ought to sit.

Tourgée also suggested finding a female plaintiff, because he believed the courts might be more sympathetic to a woman being ejected from a railroad car. However, the Comité des Citoyens instead recruited musician Daniel Desdunes, the son of group member Rodolphe Desdunes. Martinet contacted several railroad companies to inform them of the group's intentions.

[Most railroads opposed "whites-only" cars]

The railroads overwhelmingly opposed the Separate Car Act because it raised their operating costs by forcing them to use additional cars that might only be at half capacity. Some companies enforced the law, while others did not. Martinet eventually enlisted the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company to participate in the group's plan.

[First test case doesn't work]

On February 24, 1892, Daniel Desdunes purchased a first-class ticket on a train bound for Mobile, Alabama. After he sat in a "whites only" car, the conductor stopped the train, and a private detective hired by the Comité des Citoyens arrested Desdunes. The prosecution dropped their case against Desdunes in May 1892, however, after the Louisiana State Supreme Court ruled that the Separate Car Act did not apply to interstate railroad trips.

[Homer Plessy test case]

In order to bring their test case to court, the Comité des Citoyens had to stage another incident on a train trip entirely within Louisiana state lines. They recruited Plessy, who may have been a friend of Rodolphe Desdunes, to be the plaintiff. Martinet contacted the East Louisiana Railroad, one of the companies that opposed the law, and declared their intentions to stage an act of civil disobedience. He also hired the services of private detective Chris C. Cain to arrest Plessy and ensure that he was charged with violating the Separate Car Act and not with a misdemeanor such as disturbing the peace.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad running between the Press Street Depot in New Orleans and Covington, Louisiana, an approximately 30-mile journey that would have taken two hours. He sat in the "whites only" passenger car. When conductor J. J. Dowling came to collect Plessy's ticket, he told Plessy to leave the "whites only" car. Plessy refused. The conductor stopped the train, walked back to the depot, and returned with Detective Cain. Cain and other passengers forcibly removed Plessy from the train. Cain then arrested Plessy and took him to the Orleans Parish jail. The Comité des Citoyens arrived at the jail, arranged for him to be released, and paid his $500 bond the following day by offering up a committee member's house as collateral.


On October 28, 1892, Plessy was arraigned before Judge John Howard Ferguson in the Orleans Parish criminal district court. He was represented by New Orleans lawyer James Walker, who submitted a plea challenging the jurisdiction of trial court by claiming that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution, which provided for equal protection under the law and "impermissibly clothed train officers with the authority and duty to assign passengers on the basis of race and with the authority to refuse service." Walker's plea deliberately did not specify if Plessy was black or white. On November 18, Ferguson denied Walker's petition, stating that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies while they operated within state boundaries. Four days later, Walker petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition to stop the trial.

[Pro-segregation cases in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania used as precedent]

In December 1892, the Louisiana Supreme Court's five members unanimously upheld Ferguson's ruling, citing two cases from Northern states as precedents: Roberts v. City of Boston, an 1849 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision, ruling that racial segregation of schools was constitutional, and an 1867 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that upheld railroads' rights to seat black and white passengers in separate sections of passenger cars.

Supreme Court appeal

On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court issued a 7–1 decision against Plessy that upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana's train car segregation laws. Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion, first dismissing any claim that the Louisiana law violated the Thirteenth Amendment, which, in the majority's opinion, did no more than ensure that black Americans had the basic level of legal equality needed to abolish slavery. Next, the Court considered whether the law violated the Equal Protection Clause, concluding that although the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to guarantee legal equality of all races in America, it was not intended to prevent social or other types of discrimination.

[Legal definition of racial categories]

Brown's opinion ended with a note on the subject of Plessy's racial identity under the law. He wrote that while the question of whether Plessy was legally black or white may have bearing on the outcome of the criminal case, legal definitions of racial categories were an issue of state law not before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, Brown deferred to Louisiana law to determine whether Plessy was legally black or white.


After the Supreme Court ruling, Plessy's criminal trial went ahead in Ferguson's court in Louisiana on February 11, 1897. He pleaded guilty of violating the Separate Car Act, which carried a punishment of a $25 fine or twenty days in jail. He opted to pay the fine. The Comité des Citoyens disbanded shortly after the trial's end.


The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson created the "Separate but Equal" legal doctrine, allowing state-sponsored racial segregation. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the doctrine in 1954. Though the Plessy case did not involve education, it formed the legal basis of separate school systems for the following fifty-eight years.


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