On Jan. 11, 1897, Homer Plessy pleaded guilty in a New Orleans district court for sitting in a whites-only train car, eight months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Louisiana’s Separate Car Act and a doctrine of “separate but equal” LegislationThat made it possible to pass segregation legislation across the U.S.
Now, nearly 125 years later, Plessy’s conviction is getting wiped from his record. Plessy’s conviction will disappear from his record on Jan. 5th when Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards will pardon him during an event in New Orleans..
Learn more Segregation Has Gotten Worse, Not Better, and It’s Fueling the Wealth Gap Between Black and White Americans
Keith Plessy, Homer Plessy’s first cousin three times removed, said he experienced a wave of emotion when he first heard that Edwards would sign the pardon.
“My left eye gave up, and a tear just rolled down the side of my face,” he tells TIME. “It felt like I wAs not standing on my feet. It’s surreal.”
The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office submitted the application for a pardon on Nov. 5 in what’s believed to be the first use of a 2006 state law, which allows people—as well as the descendants of people—convicted of breaking state or local laws designed to “maintain or enforce racial separation or discrimination” to apply for pardons. The application comes out of the office’s civil rights division, which has been tasked with looking for wrongful convictions.
“Although my predecessor many years ago prosecuted [Plessy], he should not have,” Jason Williams, Orleans Parish District Attorney, tells TIME. “I think it’s really important that we talk about the broad discretion that prosecutors have, because the ability to prosecute someone under the law does not always mean that district attorneys and prosecutors and states attorneys should.”
History behind Plessy v. Ferguson
On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy—a mixed-race shoemaker—was arrested for sitting in a whites-only East Louisiana Railroad car and violating the state’s 1890 Separate Car Act, which That railroads had to have “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, races.”Plessy boarded the train to support a civil rights group in the area called Citizens Committee, which aims at raising awareness about the law. The law was broken five months later by Judge John H. Ferguson on November 18, 1892.
Appeal was made to the U.S. Supreme Court. But four years later, on May 18, 1896, the justices ruled 7-1 to uphold Ferguson’s decision in favor of segregation, ruling that facilities that separated the races didn’t violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Plessy had to choose between a 20-day sentence or a fine of $25. So, he pleaded guilty on January 11, 1897 and paid the fine.
This decision had an important and lasting impact on segregation law throughout the country for the first half century. As Imani Perry, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, explained to TIME in 2020, “Since 1876, the courts and Congress had steadily eroded the Reconstruction Amendments’ promises to African-Americans: suffrage, equal protection of the law and due process before the law. The truth is that the Plessy opinion and its embrace of ‘separate but equal’ let African Americans know once and for all that, despite the Constitution’s guarantees, their fundamental rights would not be protected.”
The “separate but equal” precedent wouldn’t be overturned until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education Racially segregated public school systems violated the Equal Protection Claus, creating opportunities for successful segregation challenges and a renewed civil rights movement.
History is our descent
Many of those who were raised in the segregated community that they grew up with. Plessy v. Ferguson Two descendants, now aged 64 years of their figures in the case were facilitated: Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy. Phoebe Ferguson was the great-great-granddaughter of New Orleans District Court Judge. Homer Plessy, who died in March 1925 at the age of 62. 1. 1925 at the age of 62.
Both of them remember their childhoods growing up in segregated New Orleans. Ferguson was not able to sit next to her Black babysitter in a movie theater, while Plessy couldn’t enter certain restaurants through their front doors.
Following the Jim Crow era, segregation was a reality Plessy v. Ferguson left “a deep and painful legacy that we are still dealing with today,” as Orleans Parish District Attorney Williams puts it, “and we all can see it in social inequities, whether it’s housing insecurity, food insecurity, poverty, violence in certain communities, how the criminal legal system is used in certain neighborhoods based upon the wealth or complexion of those people.”
It’s no longer Plessy v. Ferguson, it’s Plessy and Ferguson.Plessy and Ferguson only found out about their connections to the Supreme Court case when they were in their 30s and 40s, respectively—their families had never talked about these ancestors growing up. Keith Weldon Medley (author of) introduced them to one another in 2004. Plessy V. Ferguson.
“I reached my hand out to shake [Ferguson’s] handAnd she started apologizing for slavery, discrimination, ‘separate but equal,’” Keith Plessy recalls. “And I said, we weren’t born then. We’re not responsible for this. It’s no longer Plessy v. Ferguson, it’s Plessy and Ferguson.”
They founded together the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation in 2009 to educate schools about the civil rights history and the dark legacy of this case. And thanks in part to Keith Plessy’s efforts, Louisiana has been celebrating the day of Homer Plessy’s arrest as Homer Plessy Day since 2005; a strip of the street where he was arrested was renamed Homer Plessy Way in 2018.
This past fall, local civil rights attorney Mary Howell was brainstorming ideas for future foundation programming with Phoebe Ferguson, and decided to find some way to mark the 125th anniversary of Homer Plessy’s prosecution. Howell made the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office aware of the anniversary, and it was then that a staffer found the law that allowed them to pursue the posthumous pardon. Their application was unanimously approved by the state pardons board on November 12.
The approval was “a long time coming,” says Keith Plessy.
“I am so happy that there was something that we could do to make a different ending to this story,” Phoebe Ferguson adds, noting that her tie to Judge Ferguson has always felt like a “burden.”
“I can’t say that it lifts the burden of his name being attached to a conviction that had such horrific results for so long,” she says. “I can’t escape the knowledge I have about the harms done in Plessy v. Ferguson.It will feel to some extent like a burden in its own right. But in some ways, it’s a good burden in that I can use my position to help others with a deeper understanding of the role of white Americans in white supremacy and lynchings and voter suppression.”