Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 61

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 61

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This is the grave of Homer Plessy.

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Born into the Creole middle class of New Orleans in 1862 that had seen their status decline significantly since the American acquisition of Louisiana in 1803, Plessy grew up speaking French and working to improve the status of the black community in New Orleans after the Civil War. Plessy labored as a shoemaker, laborer, clerk, and insurance agent over the years. But while not as wealthy as the Creole elite, he was capable enough and, frankly, white enough that he rose in that society. By 1887, he was vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, which worked primarily to support public education in New Orleans. He also was a central figure in the Comité de Citoyens, the Creole group organized to fight segregation on public transportation. Because of his light skin, they asked Plessy to test the state’s Separate Car Law in 1892 that mandated segregated streetcars. He did so and was arrested after telling the conductor that he was 7/8 white and thus demanded to sit in the white car. A month later, his case was heard by a judge named John Howard Ferguson, who denied his arguments that the segregated cars violated the 13th and 14th Amendments.

Plessy then filed a petition for a writ of error and that was the case heard by the Supreme Court in 1896, which shamefully issued the notorious “separate but equal” by a 7-1 decision (Brewer was absent because of a family death). Of those 7 justices, 6 were from the North. Horace Gray was placed on the Court by Chester Arthur. Howell Jackon and Henry Billings were named by Benjamin Harrison. The other three were Cleveland appointees, which maybe you wouldn’t expect to do the right thing, but the Republican commitment to civil rights by 1896 was effectively zero. As they are in 2016. Only John Marshall Harlan, a former slaveholder, dissented.

After 1896, Plessy did not play a major public role in the world. He and his wife had some children and remained active in the local community, but there is little notable about his life after his famous case was decided. He died in 1925, at the age of 62.

When I teach about Plessy v. Ferguson, I like to show an image of Plessy as a way to talk about race in the United States.

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This is an individual who could easily pass as white. And he mostly was white. But in American society, this was (and is) a black man. I like to ask the students about this, not because they have any answers (they don’t) but to get them thinking. I then go on to talk about why we talk about Barack Obama as the first black president instead of the 44th white president, since he is 50 percent white. Of course we know why we talk about Obama in this way, but it’s always worth destabilizing notions of race in Americans’ minds because the one drop rule is still a powerful, if subconscious, part of American ideology.

Homer Plessy is buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans, Louisiana, which I now understand is closed to the public due to the constant defacing of Marie Laveau’s grave. This is why we can’t have nice things.

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  • Dalai Rasta

    Just noticed that Wikipedia has a photo of Homer Plessy in its article for Gov. P. B. S. Pinchback.

    • rngross

      Right. This isn’t a photo of Homer Plessy

      • So this is interesting. There is no other photo of Plessy that seems to be on the internet. It also seems to be just about the only photo of Pinchback. I do suspect it is the latter now that I look into it, but it’s very strange that at this point (after all, it’s not like we are in the early days of Wikipedia when everything was inaccurate), this is not more of a thing out there.

        • Thom

          I have a vague memory from the LA State Museum that Plessy had a broad, non-bearded face, and, to support your main point, looked very white.

        • Albion Toure

          I’d always heard there were no extant photos of Homer Plessy. There are pictures of Daniel Desdunes, who was the first test plaintiff put forward by the Comite. He was also racially ambiguous in appearance, so his picture at least gives some idea of what the plaintiffs in Plessy were going for. If Judge Ferguson hadn’t held the Separate Car Law inapplicable to Desdunes’s interstate train, we’d all be talking about Desdunes v. Ferguson anyway.

        • Dilan Esper

          This blog’s having a bad week, between Farley saying that Maria Schneider was actually anally raped by Marlon Brando (she wasn’t), to Lemieux saying that Wikileaks has RNC emails and didn’t release them (there’s no evidence of that), to Loomis misidentifying a photo that was not of Homer Plessy.

          This is why newspapers hire fact checkers!

          • Were you seeking to reach Peak Asshole with that comment?

          • Ahenobarbus

            Perhaps Loomis could have Googled for images of Plessy, that would have clarified things. Except Google gives this same photo.

      • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

        This isn’t a photo of Homer Plessy

        Well this seems like something that is more than just interesting, and worth getting to the bottom of.

        But in American society, this was (and is) a black man.

        Caveat because the photo is very old, but this man, as presented, would almost certainly be white today.

  • Xenos

    What is also galling is that the Plessy decision had no decent authority to rest upon, so it cites a Lemuel Shaw decision issued before 13th and 14th amendments were in force.

    Even if you take out all the other aspects of awfulness surrounding Plessy, you have to make time to point out that it is one the most thoroughly dishonest of all USSC decisions.

    • Taylor

      More dishonest than Bush vs Gore?

    • Nobdy

      Plessy is a real litmus test for conservative law students. Most agree that it was wrongly decided (while implying that now that we live in a post-racial society we don’t have to worry about such bad decisions in the future) but a few will argue that it’s good law and even though the policy it defends is reprehensible the decision itself is sound. Those are the truly scary ones, because they both hold vile views (as you pointed out the decision is NOT sound, and the only reason to endorse it is as a policy preference) and know how to hide them. They are the ones who will go on to be Paul Ryan types, excitedly cutting entitlements and benefits to the poor while tut-tutting about fiscal responsibility and claiming that really this is best for everyone.

      I also think that Shelby County will be a Plessy type decision in 50 years. An emblem of a morally debased and evil time when institutions failed us as a country. That is if we’re not still debased 50 years from now.

  • XTPD

    OT: O FFS

    • ThrottleJockey

      Thanks for posting. Glad the person was fired.

      • Hogan

        It’s almost certainly not the person responsible.

    • Jhoosier

      Reading the article and looking at the image of the notice, I draw two different conclusions. The ad says specifically, “alt-right (Neo-Nazi)”. So not asking for one of each, but defining alt-right as Neo-Nazi. Sounds like the person who actually wrote the ad was told to look for alt-rights, and decided to let everyone know what that means. The article is pretty poorly written and confusing.

      Still with XTPD on the FFS sentiment. Cadillac still wants alt-right thinkers, so basically Neo-Nazis.

    • BartletForGallifrey

      Spending money to post an ad when you could just go on twitter for five minutes is seriously wasteful, too.

  • ThrottleJockey

    Since you bring up America’s race consciousness. Its odd how white supremacist notions of race get propagated. I recently learned something incredibly disturbing about my grandmother who died when I was too young to know her. She was half Irish/half black, the product of rape. She was raised in Memphis and when she was young passed for white to attend school. At some point I imagine she was distinguishable enough that she eventually stopped passing and married a black man with whom she had 9 kids. Those 9 kids eventually gave her scores of grandkids.

    She divided those kids into 2 groups. Those who were light skinned and those who were dark skinned. During the summer when the kids were out of school those who were dark skinned were forbidden from playing outside between the hours of 11A-6P–lest they become even darker. Imagine for a minute the 60-something woman who prefers to be confined to a house full of screaming kids in an un-air conditioned house rather than let them play outside for fear they’ll darken. That was my grandmother’s mindset. After meeting my cousin’s Jr. Prom date she told him, “I hope you don’t plan to marry her. She has small boobs, nappy hair and is dark skinned.” (My grandmother thought bigger bosomed women had better backs for child bearing. Whatevs.)

    She wasn’t any nicer to the lighter skinned kids. My (half-)siblings are all very light skinned and because we were broke and living in the projects my grandmother called them, “Yella-Good-for-Nothings.” That meant: Its good that you’re at least light skinned, but you’re dirt poor so all that yellow is good for nothing.

    And then my father gave her the greatest indignity of all. He chose a dark skinned woman when he re-married. My mother. They despised each other immediately. My mom, who had been teased by her own siblings for being dark–my grandfather had nicknamed her “Joy Baby” but her brothers twisted that to Tar Baby–hated my grandmother ’til the day she died. Forty years after my grandmother died my mother still ranted about her.

    My grandmother is the only relative I can say this about: I’m glad I never knew the bitch.

    At any rate, I thought I’d offer this up as 1 more commentary about how notions of race propagated through American society. My grandmother was born c. 1910.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Fascinating story.

      • econoclast

        It really is.

        • CrunchyFrog

          Just to be clear – that wasn’t sarcasm font – I really appreciated TJ posting that.

    • DrDick

      My own great grandfather, my father’s mother’s father, was a Redbone, mixed race population of Native American, African, and white ancestry, from SW Louisiana. She did not know about it until right after my son was born, when a distant relative working on genealogy wrote her.

      • Excitable Boy

        What exactly is the difference between Redbones and Black Seminoles? Is there some spillover or did they form in distinctly different ways.

        • osceola

          Geographical distance, for one. The blacks who lived with the Seminoles were in Florida. The blacks and Seminoles were distinct from each other, yet relations were quite fluid. Some blacks were slaves of Seminoles, though not in the way whites think. It was more of a tributary relationship, with the slave tending his crops and stock and giving a portion to the “master,” rather than working for him.

          But other blacks among the Seminoles were free, and recognized as free by the community. There was intermarriage as well. It’s never been proven, but one of Osceola’s two wives may have been part black.

          Most of the black Seminoles were sent to Indian Territory during the removal war (the more appropriate name for what historians call “the Second Seminole War”). They were considered citizens of the tribe after the US Civil War, but recently lost that status(1990s) when the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma tightened tribal membership rules.

          • Excitable Boy

            I was under the impression that some of the Black Seminoles settled in LA either by lax enforcement during the resettlement or they went there to hide out when the Seminole Wars were going bad. Some came from the earlier Creek Wars which basically created the Seminoles going forward as we know them now. There is some Gullah influences in both subsets. My understanding of the history may be too shaky to grasp a fuller understanding.

            • DrDick

              No. There were some who moved to Northern Mexico in the 1840s, along with some of the Seminole Indians under Wildcat (Kowakoce). The Indians (or most of them) returned to Indian Territory just before the Civil War, but the Black Seminoles remained. Some later moved north to Brackettville, TX, where they served as “Indian scouts” for the US Army during the Indian wars in the SW.

          • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

            They were considered citizens of the tribe after the US Civil War, but recently lost that status(1990s) when the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma tightened tribal membership rules.

            I find stuff like this fascinating. Imagine you grew up thinking you were part of some racial or ethnic group, and then, suddenly, you weren’t. A similar thing might be about to happen with MENA’s – they were white up until the last census, but next time they might not be.

          • DrDick

            Given that my dissertation is on Seminole ethnogenesis, I would say that, while the Black Seminoles mostly had separate self governing communities from the Indians, they weer no different from the other Seminole towns in this regard. As such their towns had their own town chief (mekko), but were subject to higher order chiefs* and owed tribute to them. Some were actual slaves, but native slavery in the Southeast more closely resembled Roman or traditional West African slavery, where slaves owed a fixed amount to their owners and were free to work for their own benefit on the side, than American slavery. Many Native slave owners let their slaves reside in nearby Black towns. There were also Black Seminoles, both free and slave, living in some of the Indian towns.

            *Seminoles (and Creeks) were organized as complex chiefdoms, with local “town” (etalwa) chiefs, district chiefs, and paramount chiefs. There were originally at least 2-3 separate Seminole Chiefdoms in northern Florida. The Black Seminoles were initially tributaries either to the Alachua chiefs in north central Florida (just south of Gainesville) or to the Tallahassee and Mikasuki chiefs (between the Apalachicola and Aucilla rivers near modern Tallahassee (built on the site of the Seminole town of the same name). The two chiefdoms merged in the 1820s when they were forced onto the reservation in north central Florida(roughly between Tampa and Orlando) under the leadership of the Alachua paramount chief Mikkonapa (mekko+anapa=top chief). That is when they all came to be called “Seminoles”, previously reserved for the Alachua chiefdom.

        • DrDick

          Completely different groups, but similar backgrounds. Both are what are known as maroon communities.

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      Interesting (though sad) story.

      This also caught my attention:

      She was half Irish/half black… passed for white to attend school.

      If she passed for white, especially back then, I doubt she was half black. Obama is what a half black person looks like, and he certainly wouldn’t “pass.”

      • DrDick

        “Half black” at that time means one parent was legally black and the other legally white (or something else) and has nothing to do with heredity (any more than “blackness or “whiteness” do today).

      • Thom

        Also there is a huge variety of phenotypical appearance resulting from one parent who is “black” and another who is “white.” Obama could have been lighter skinned and had straighter hair, given his parents. Or he could have been darker, with kinkier hair.

        • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

          My understanding is that that only happens when people on both sides are at least partially mixed. But Obama’s dad was 100% African, and his mom was pretty close to 100% white.

        • ThrottleJockey

          This. I know people who could pass as Latino or maybe Italian who are mixed black and white. In fact one is frequently thought to be Latino by other Latinos.

          My father’s hair is straight, like a white persons. So yeah genetics is a little random no?

      • Simple Desultory Philip

        i’m just gonna leave this here…

        • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

          Yeah, I remember seeing that. Dad is white, mom is mixed. Kids come out all across the spectrum.

          But I think that only happens when one or both parents are already, themselves, of a mixed background.

  • ThrottleJockey

    This is an individual who could easily pass as white. And he mostly was white. But in American society, this was (and is) a black man. I like to ask the students about this, not because they have any answers (they don’t) but to get them thinking. I then go on to talk about why we talk about Barack Obama as the first black president instead of the 44th white president, since he is 50 percent white. Of course we know why we talk about Obama in this way, but it’s always worth destabilizing notions of race in Americans’ minds because the one drop rule is still a powerful, if subconscious, part of American ideology.

    I confess I and most black people have decidedly mixed feelings about this. There are no greater enforcers of the 1 drop rule in modern American society than black people. There is strength in solidarity, and like a tough union boss we do our best to enforce this. For the most part this works. I can count on zero hands the mixed people I know personally who consider themselves “white” or “bi-racial”.

    Recall the guffaws when Tiger Woods said he was, “Cablasian”. It was black people–myself included–who said, ‘Naw you still a nigga.’ (FWIW my father was friends with Tiger’s family, so in my case I knew that for a fact).

    PS–I’d be curious what other black commenters think about this. Enforcing the 1 drop rule is really a counter-liberal strategy, and yet I’m 110% behind it, though I imagine more liberal blacks/other minorities may actually be repulsed by the idea.

    • Excitable Boy

      You sound like your grandmother.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Lol not as bad as all that. But if it wasn’t a problematic behavior on my part I wouldn’t have called this a confession. Nor would I have called it illiberal. Nor opened myself to criticism, especially by other blacks.

        Since I’m hardly the only black person who feels like this I thought I’d open it up for discussion. This view is pervasive but it’s worth discussing.

    • Simple Desultory Philip

      this is an interesting point. i do understand the value of solidarity in fighting racial oppression. but i admit that i do also have difficulty supporting something like a “rule” that disallows folks the ability to define and identify themselves the way they feel best describes their identity – especially when that identity (i.e. as “white” or “bi-racial”) directly challenges the white supremacist binary narrative which defines everybody as either “us” or “them” (depending largely on whatever the current crop of Nazis defines as acceptable variation *within* the “white” race.) i’m a person of recent native american descent who has some “native-looking” facial features that you can probably identify if you’re searching for them and squinting hard, but skin/hair color isn’t among them, i’m read almost exclusively as white, and i was raised in a community that is also mostly white. my bi-racial identity reflects the fact that i’m a person of color by heritage and i have family members who are *clearly* read that way by white society, but i myself also enjoy the privileges that come from having a white presentation in the world at large, from my appearance to my name. i think if i was suddenly being told by all my relatives to start identifying as strictly “yaqui”, it would be weird and counterproductive? ymmv.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Yep I understand your situation which is why I raised this as an issue. Its an incident where perhaps the collective’s interest diverge from the individual’s interest.

        From my limited reading this is maybe(?) a bigger issue in your community than even in mine. Native Americans are the only ones I know with a federal law which restricts/limits the ability of non-Native families to adopt Native American children.

        It’s a hard issue. The black community takes it very, very personally when mixed race children identify as white. It’s about the highest affront you can imagine. This isn’t a defense it’s just how most blacks think.

        Even my black friends who are more liberal than me think this way. I was surprised when a close friend who had married a Jewish guy referred to their children as black. If there was anyone I knew personally who might refer to their children as “bi-racial” it was those two. When black people hear “bi-racial” they think that person is trying to elevate their status above other blacks. Identity issues are among the most difficult and anger inducing issues. Recall how many blacks said Obama “wasn’t really black”.

  • Excitable Boy

    I then go on to talk about why we talk about Barack Obama as the first black president instead of the 44th white president, since he is 50 percent white.

    Not exactly his mother was a descendant of John Punch the first “official slave in the English colonies.”

    Ancestry.com announced on July 30, 2012, after using a combination of old documents and yDNA analysis, that Dunham’s mother was descended from African John Punch, who was an indentured servant/slave in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Dunham

    Although, I thought BO’s heritage and being the first AA President interesting since his upbringing by his mostly white family, including the influence of his stepfather and minimal impact of his biological father, was quite atypical. Until I find out about Punch, I thought of course the first black President descended from slave owners and not slaves.

    http://archive.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/03/04/obama_ancestors_owned_slaves_a_researcher_finds/

    • Thom

      How many African Americans are not the descendants of white slave owners, through no fault of themselves or their ancestral mothers?

      • Excitable Boy

        I didn’t make any judgement on it in that way. I just found it typical that the first Black President had more recent slave holders as his ancestors, rather than ancestors that were actually slaves like most African Americans with roots as deep as on his mother’s side. He is a recognized descendant of slave holders not an unrecognized product of what would now in many cases would be termed most charitably as non consensual sex.

        Walter Francis White’s, former President of the NAACP, great-grandfather was possibly William Henry Harrison. Was his relationship similar dynamic to the one Du Bois white ancestors had with their slave mistresses? When slavery was more in flux in the early18th century as opposed to the rigidity of the mid-19th century, could the dynamic of slave owner and slave been closer to factory owner and worker of the late 19th century?

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Francis_White
        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._E._B._Du_Bois

        I didn’t really want to get into that specific aspect, because I don’t like putting modern judgements on relationships we don’t know exactly how they worked. This is not meant as an apology for slavery or rape, but I am uncomfortable with the the certitude many express over past events. I find it an easy purity test when these same people have no compunction wearing Nike shoes or using palm oil products that might be the produced and procured from modern slavery conditions.

        Through “no fault” of the mother implies a form of misogyny or bias in certain cases. People even slaves have some autonomy. They may not be able to make a completely free decision, but even if exploited they will try and make a choice that is best for themselves or their progeny. Your response in a way denies that. Although from your response, perhaps I should have added a little more background and been more precise in my language.

        I understand your point and am not trying to be overly critical, it just seems too sweeping and tangential to what I actually wrote.

        • Thom

          I agree that some slaves had some degree of agency in their sexual relationships, and some were able to use this to their advantage. Of course the larger dynamic was always there, even if the two people involved felt mutual affection. But I agree with your corrective.

          I also think it is very important that we have yet to have a president who is the descendant of American slaves.

  • AMK

    Rep. GK Butterfield, who recently chaired the Congressional Black Caucus (I don’t remember if it was in this congress or the previous one) is probably a good example of the one drop rule—he’s certainly the whitest black person I’ve ever seen. I remember talking with some other white people about how maybe this was strategy on the part of the CBC in a Republican House.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I saw him for the first time 3 weeks ago doing an interview on TV. Me and my father had a 15 minute discussion about whether or not he was black. Before I saw his face I heard him speak. And without having looked at the screen I assumed from the sound of his voice that he was black. When I saw his face and hair I was very confused. His voice sounded black but he looked straight white! Lol. Later in the interview they said he was a member of the CBC. It was quite a debate me and pop had going.

  • bender

    Thank you for this article. I did not know the details of the case before.

    There is a pretty good series of detective novels set among Creoles in 1830s Louisiana, with a black protagonist named Benjamin Janvier/January. I think A Free Man of Color is the first novel in the series.
    The novels contain a lot of background about the complicated social structure and the changes in it after Louisiana became a state.

  • peisenst

    My understanding is that for a while after 1896 Plessy left New Orleans and passed for white. Perhaps this is just a rumor, related to me by a leading African American historian, and I’m not sure of the latest research of this. He certainly lived a very quiet and relatively anonymous life thereafter, a lifestyle consistent with passing.

  • randy khan

    The cemetery is not completely closed – you can go on guided tours. The day we were there early this year (which seems like a decade ago now), there were at least two other tour groups there at the same time, so maybe a few hundred people a day can go into it.

    Plessy’s grave was one of the stops on the tour. He got less time than Marie Laveau, although I guess that’s maybe not a surprise.

    • Thom

      Dutch Morial, the first black mayor of NOLA, is also buried there.

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