AN AMERICAN PROFILE:
Pioneer in Civil Rights
Homer Plessy was born three months after the Emancipation Proclamation in New Orleans, Louisiana during 1862 to a family of mixed racial heritage. Homer and his family were light-skinned and “passed” as white. They were considered free people of color or Creoles of color. His great-grandmother however, was of African origin and thus, Homer considered himself as being 7/8 white and 1/8 black. Homer’s father died when he was five, and his mother remarried. When he was old enough, he took the job as a shoemaker, and in 1887 at the age of 25, he married Louise Bordenave. Homer led a common life while also being interested and engaged in social activism. By 1887, Plessy had become the vice-president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club. This goal of this group was to reform public education in New Orleans.
In 1890, a law for racially segregated facilities was written into Louisiana state law. Laws such as this became known as Jim Crow laws. This law included the Separate Car law that called for the segregation of passenger trains traveling within the state of Louisiana. This law sparked the concerns of a group of citizens fighting for the rights of all people. This group called themselves the Citizens’ Committee. The goal planned strategies to challenge segregation laws in the courts. They hired Albion Tourgee, a white New York attorney who had previously fought for African Americans, to come to Louisiana and lead the challenge. In 1896, the group asked Homer Plessy to act against the state law by sitting on a railcar designated for white people only. He was then arrested and jailed but released the next day on a $500 bond.
Homer Plessy went to court on the basis that the law had violated his 13th and 14th amendment rights. Judge John Howard Ferguson oversaw the court case that was titled, “Plessy vs. Ferguson”. After listening to the case made by Homer Plessy’s lawyer, Judge Ferguson found Homer Plessy guilty. In 1896, the case had made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with Justice William Billings Brown presiding. Justice Brown created the “separate but equal” clause, which thus legalized the separation of facilities as along as they were of equal opportunity. This decision also helped sustain the Jim Crow laws.
After the Supreme Court hearing, Plessy went back to common life and faded out of the public view. Homer and Louise had children while continuing in religious and social activities around the community. Homer also sold insurance while working for People’s Life Insurance Company.
In 1925, at the age of 61, Homer Plessy died and was placed in an above ground tomb in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was placed in the Debergue-Blanco family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1.
On June 7, 2003, city officials, members of the Plessy family and the Crescent City Peace Alliance unveiled the plans for the “Plessy Park” in New Orleans. The park is located at the intersection of two streets where Homer Plessy refused to move to a segregated passenger railcar.