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Phoebe Ferguson, descendant of Judge John H. Ferguson, and Keith Plessy, descendant of Homer Plessy of the landmark 1896 Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson case, their friendship was natural and almost immediate. File photo by Liz Jurey/Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans ORG XMIT: 58485

Homer Plessy doesn’t need validation from Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana Pardon Board or anyone else. His place in history is clear, firm and everlasting.

But like a number of other official acknowledgements, it’s good for Louisiana to course-correct and put itself on the good side of history by officially granting Plessy a pardon.

The Plessy name is part of the internationally known 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson court case. Plessy found his case in the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a “separate but equal” law that didn’t change until the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the court. He had boarded a “Whites only” train car at the Press Street Station in New Orleans in 1892 as he challenged the state’s law requiring races to be separate when riding trains.

A shoemaker from the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, Plessy challenged White supremacy. He was arrested. On Friday, the state pardon board approved the Plessy pardon application for review by the governor. 

A Creole man, Plessy’s case was considered and approved by the pardon board and sent to the governor. Now, just shy of 100 years after his death, Plessy and Ferguson relatives are likely to see his conviction for crossing the color line voided. 

Plessy was a member of the Citizens’ Committee, a cross-racial civil rights group that struggled against segregationist laws passed by the Louisiana Legislature after the fall of Reconstruction. The group decided to challenge the new law. Plessy, who was one-eighth African descent, could have passed as White. His appearance was a big reason why the committee thought such segregation laws were ridiculous. The case went through various courts and reached the nation’s top courtroom. In May 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 to uphold Louisiana’s train segregation law.

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, relatives of those who carried their last names during the famous court case, met at a 2004 book signing. A friendship developed. They launched a foundation dedicated to reconciliation. In a number of ways, they were ahead of the state they call home.

While Plessy is a famous name in jurisprudence, it is probably most often cited because of the dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan. The son of a slaveholding family stirringly argued that "our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."

For years, however, the nation struggled over Harlan's correct prediction that race issues were consigning Black Americans to a "condition of legal inferiority."

Such were the times of that era. In some ways, it’s similar to our times these days. There are some similarities as our nation debates a "critical race theory" long reserved for some law school classes, as our country is sharply divided over gender equity and as Black Lives Matter is frequently misunderstood as something that divides rather than a rallying cry for equality.

During a Wednesday afternoon radio interview, Edwards said he’ll “certainly” sign the pardon, but he wants to make it a significant event, including Plessy and Ferguson relatives because clearing Plessy is the right thing and it will be a historic moment.

Brian Mitchell, a University of Arkansas-Little Rock associate professor who studies the era, said it’s the right thing to do. “It is considered one of the worst decisions ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “Whenever we have the ability, even symbolically, to correct the historic record or a historic injustice, we should take that opportunity.”

We look forward to the day Edwards concludes his review with a pardon of Plessy, erasing a stain on Louisiana’s history.