Homer Plessy died a free man, but he died convicted of a crime based on an immoral Louisiana state law.
Gov. John Bel Edwards corrected a longstanding wrong Wednesday when he officially pardoned Plessy for an 1896 conviction based on his refusal to move from a Whites-only railroad train car. A man with only one-eighth Black blood according to court filings, Plessy was too Black to share a short, 40-mile ride from New Orleans to Covington in 1892.
Plessy didn’t make it nearly that far. A few short yards away from where he'd boarded, he was arrested and charged with violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act, a law that said Black and White riders could travel on the same train but only with “separate but equal” accommodations based on race. Working with a civil rights organization with the backing of attorneys to help navigate the legal system, Plessy knew what he was doing. They were challenging the law and the idea that transportation should be segregated.
Plessy’s case worked its way through the state court system. In his trial, Judge John Ferguson ruled that the law was constitutional and so it was right to remove Plessy from the train. The case landed with the U.S. Supreme Court. Once again, Plessy's attorneys argued that the law was unconstitutional. The nation’s highest court disagreed, reinforcing the “separate but equal” concept for years.
It wasn’t the result Plessy and his attorneys hoped. They thought Supreme Court justices would understand the basic concept of treating all people the same when it comes to accommodations. But the court ruled 7-1 that the law was constitutional and necessary to preserve “public peace and good order” — a dreadful decision that stood until the court overturned the precedent with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, in which it ruled that separate accommodations are inherently unequal.
Plessy pleaded guilty in 1897 and he paid a $25 fine. He died in 1925.
More than 95 years after his death, Plessy and Ferguson descendants gathered at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts to watch Edwards sign copies of the Plessy pardon. A host of local and state notables, judges and justices, elected officials and others joined the historic event in an outside courtyard.
Angela Bell of the Southern University Law Center said “there is no expiration date on justice” and “everything branded legal is not just.”
Keith Plessy, a Plessy first cousin, three generations removed, was emotional as he said the moment meant much to him and his family: “Homer Plessy will have his way today.”
Phoebe Ferguson, a great-great granddaughter of Judge Ferguson, gave credit to several who helped prepare the case for the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles, which recommended that Edwards grant the pardon. She specifically named Emily Maw, chief of District Attorney Jason Williams’ civil rights divisions, and Cormac Boyle, an assistant district attorney in the division.
Williams gave the day a different spin. It was a predecessor in his office who prosecuted Plessy, something Williams said was a choice that shouldn’t have been made. “Homer Plessy was no criminal. He was then and he is now a hero,” he said.
The pardon may seem symbolic to some, but symbols matter as we continue to work through the process of reckoning with our country's imperfect past.
When we are at our best as a nation, we get things right the first time. When we fall short of that, we do the next best thing by acknowledging our errors and correcting them.