Who Was Homer Plessy?
Homer Plessy was a shoemaker whose one act of civil disobedience helped inspire future generations of the Civil Rights Movement. He challenged Louisiana segregation legislation by refusing to move from a "whites only" railcar in 1896. His case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court and arguments from it were used decades later in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.
Homer Adolph Plessy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 17, 1862, to a family of mixed racial heritage. His family could pass for white and were considered "free people of color." Plessy thought of himself as 1/8 Black since his great-grandmother was from Africa. As a young man, Plessy worked as a shoemaker, and at age 25, he married Lousie Bordnave. Taking up social activism, in 1887, Plessy served as vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club to reform New Orleans' public education system.
'Plessy v. Ferguson'
Plessy's activism was heightened in response to Louisiana passing a law segregating public facilities in 1890, including the Separate Car Act. The 30-year-old Plessy challenged this legislation on behalf of a group called the Citizens' Committee. In 1892, he purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad and sat in the "whites only" section. He then stated to the conductor he was 1/8 Black and refused to remove himself from the car. Ejected from the train, Plessy was jailed overnight and released on a $500 bond.
Protesting the violation of his 13th and 14th amendment rights, the history-maker's court case became known as Plessy v. Ferguson. With Judge John Howard Ferguson presiding, Plessy was found guilty, but the case went on to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. During the proceedings, Justice William Billings Brown defined the separate but equal clause; it supported segregation and the Jim Crow laws as long as each race's public facilities were equal.
Legacy and Death
Afterward, Plessy returned to everyday family life, working as an insurance salesman. He passed away on March 1, 1925, at age 62. Despite the legal defeat, this activist had a major impact on the Civil Rights Movement. His actions helped inspire the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP incorporated Plessy's 14th Amendment arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled the separate-but-equal doctrine.
Plessy's legacy has also been recognized in the establishment of "Homer A. Plessy Day" in New Orleans, with a park named in his honor as well. Perhaps more remarkably, 50 years after what transpired, relatives of Plessy and Ferguson united to create a foundation that provides civil rights education, preservation and outreach.
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