Employee Feature: Revisiting Plessy v. Ferguson

By Melva Staton, Legal Recovery, PRA Group

Do you know that 63 years before Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on a bus reserved for White passengers, another similar act of civil disobedience took place that challenged racial segregation?

In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy, a 30-year-old shoemaker, was arrested for sitting in a train car designated for White people only because he refused to move to a car designated for Black people on the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy, who was one eighth black, violated the Louisiana Act 111 (passed in 1890) that enforced “separate and equal accommodations” for people who were White and people who were Black in railway compartments. As such, Plessy was jailed which gave rise to the case Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana.

The case challenged Louisiana’s failure to comply with the 13th and 14th US Constitutional Amendments to abolish slavery and protect civil liberties, respectively. Unfortunately, Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled against Plessy and upheld the state’s act of separate and equal. However, Plessy’s case was appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson) in 1896 where the court upheld the lower court’s decisions and established the precedent of the legal doctrine “separate but equal.”

Fast forward 130 years, on January 5, 2022, the Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, posthumously pardoned Homer Adolph Plessy of his conviction. Governor Edwards stated, “The stroke of my pen on this pardon, while momentous, it does not erase generations of pain and discrimination. It doesn’t eradicate all the wrongs wrought by the Plessy court or fix all of our present challenges. We can all acknowledge we have a long ways to go, but this pardon is a step in the right direction.”

In the New York Times article, “With a Pardon, Homer Plessy’s Record Is Clear, but a Painful Legacy Endures,” author Rick Rojas explains that this posthumous pardoning is part of a larger measure, the Avery C. Alexander Act, passed by Louisiana lawmakers to clear the records of those convicted of violating laws that enforced segregation or discrimination.

In 2004, the author of “We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson,” Keith Weldon Medley, introduced the descendants of the parties in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson. With their introduction, Keith Plessy extended his hand to shake Ferguson’s hand and Ferguson started to apologize for slavery, discrimination, and “separate but equal.” But Keith stated to her, “…we weren’t born then. We’re not responsible for this. It’s no longer Plessy v. Ferguson, it’s Plessy and Ferguson.”

Together, they founded the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation to address the wrongs of the past and bring about future change through unity and understanding. The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation is a civil rights education nonprofit aiming to help schools teach the history of the case and its dark legacy.

About the author:

Melva Staton (She/her/hers) is a member of PRA’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee (DISC). She’s also a legal clerk in PRA’s legal recovery department.