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

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 61


This is the grave of Homer Plessy.

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 ComitĂ© 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.


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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