It Only Took Louisiana 129 Years to Pardon Homer Plessy

Homer Plessy’s arrest led to the infamous Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson.
homer-plessy-supreme-court-case-pardoned-lousiana
Homer Plessy (Image via Plessy and Ferguson Foundation)

Homer Plessy, the Black man who refused to leave a “whites-only” train car in an act of civil disobedience that later reached the Supreme Court, was finally pardoned more than a century after being arrested. 

“The stroke of my pen on this pardon, while momentous, it doesn’t 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,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said during a ceremony Wednesday to formally vacate Plessy’s arrest from his record. 

Advertisement

But, he added: “This pardon is a step in the right direction.” 

The act is believed to be the first use of a state law that allowed people convicted of breaking discriminatory laws and their descendants to apply for pardons, according to TIME. 

In 1892, Plessy, who was mixed-race, was recruited by a local civil rights organization to deliberately break Louisiana’s Separate Car Act, which segregated train passengers. He purchased a first-class train ticket, sat in a whites-only car bound for the city of Covington, told a conductor he was “colored,” and then refused to move. 

After Plessy, a shoemaker and activist, was apprehended, his attorneys challenged the state’s racist law on the grounds that it violated the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizens equal protection under the law. The case eventually wound up before the Supreme Court, which ruled against Plessy. 

In an 1896 decision, the justices determined 7-1 in Plessy v. Ferguson that whites-only cars didn’t run afoul of the Constitution and upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine. That ruling entrenched Jim Crow segregation for years to come and guaranteed classrooms, lunch counters, medical facilities, and more that were divided by race.

Advertisement

On Wednesday, Edwards quoted from the sole dissent in the case, written by Judge John Marshall Harlan.

“What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens,” Harlan wrote in his dissent, as quoted by Edwards.

Plessy pleaded guilty to his charges eight months after the Supreme Court ruling and paid a $25 fine. He died in 1925, before he could see the “separate but equal” doctrine overturned in another famous Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

AP_21316544346924.jpg

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the principals in the Plessy V. Ferguson court case, pose for a photograph in front of a historical marker in New Orleans, on Tuesday, June 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Bill Haber, File)

Plessy’s descendants, in tandem with those of John Howard Ferguson, the Louisiana judge who presided over Plessy’s case, long advocated for his conviction to be vacated. Following that campaign, Louisiana’s Board of Pardons unanimously recommended Plessy’s pardon on Nov. 12, according to the Associated Press.

“This is truly a blessed day for the ancestors and the elders, for our generation today, for our children, and for generations that have yet to be born,” Keith Plessy, a descendant of Homer Plessy, said during the pardoning ceremony Wednesday, at times holding back tears. “I feel like my feet are not touching the ground today, ’cause the ancestors are carrying me.”