Biography of Homer Plessy, Civil Rights Activist

The Man Behind the Supreme Court Case Plessy v. Ferguson

A sign pays tribute to the Plessy v. Ferguson case.
This sign is located where Homer Plessy was arrested for violating racial segregation laws.

Infrogmation of New Orleans / Wikimedia commons

Homer Plessy (1862-1925) is best known as the plaintiff in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, in which he challenged Louisiana's Separate Car Act. As the son of free people of color with mostly European ancestry, Plessy used his racially ambiguous appearance to challenge racial segregation on a Louisiana train, cementing his legacy as a civil rights activist.

Fast Facts: Homer Plessy

  • Full Name: Homère Patrice Adolphe Plessy
  • Known For: Civil rights activist who challenged racial segregation policies. Plaintiff in U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896
  • Born: March 17, 1863 in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Died: March 1, 1925 in Metairie, Louisiana
  • Parents: Joseph Adolphe Plessy, Rosa Debergue Plessy, and Victor M. Dupart (stepfather)

Early Years

Homer Plessy was born Homère Patrice Adolphe Plessy to French-speaking parents Joseph Adolphe Plessy and Rosa Debergue Plessy. Germain Plessy, his paternal grandfather, was a white man born in Bordeaux, France, who moved to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s. He and his wife, Catherine Mathieu, a free woman of color, had eight children, including Homer Plessy’s father.

Joseph Adolphe Plessy died in the late 1860s when Homer was a small boy. In 1871, his mother remarried Victor M. Dupart, a U.S. Post Office clerk and shoemaker. Plessy followed in his stepfather’s footsteps, working as a shoemaker at a business called Patricio Brito's during the 1880s, and he also worked in other capacities, including as an insurance agent. Outside of work, Plessy was an active member of his community.

In 1887, Plessy served as vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club, a New Orleans organization focused on public education reform. The following year, he married Louise Bordenave at St. Augustine Church. He was 25 and his bride was 19. The couple lived in the Tremé neighborhood, now an important historic site for African-American and Créole culture. 

At age 30, Plessy joined Comité des Citoyens, which translates to Citizens’ Committee. The racially mixed organization advocated for civil rights, a topic that had interested Plessy since childhood, when his stepfather had been an activist involved in the 1873 Unification Movement to foster racial equality in Louisiana. When the time came for Plessy to make a sacrifice to fight injustice, he did not back away.

Challenging Jim Crow

The leadership of Comité des Citoyens asked Plessy if he would be willing to challenge one of Louisiana's Jim Crow laws by boarding the white section of a train car. The group wanted him to make the move to challenge the Separate Car Act, a law passed in 1890 by the Louisiana State Legislature which required blacks and whites to board “equal but separate” train cars.

News report about Homer Plessy arrest
Article in the Daily Picayune, New Orleans, announcing the arrest of (Homer) Adolphe Plessy for violation of railway racial segregation law. The case would go to the US Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson.  Public Domain / Daily Picayune, New Orleans, June 9, 1892

Louisiana’s Separate Car Act required “all railway companies carrying passengers on their trains, in this State, to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing separate coaches or compartments so as to secure separate accommodations, defining the duties of the officers of such railways; directing them to assign passengers to the coaches or compartments set aside for the use of the race to which such passengers belong.”

On February 4, 1892, on a first attempt to challenge the law, civil rights activist Daniel Desdunes, son of Rodolphe Desdunes, one of Comité des Citoyens’ founders, bought a ticket for a white passenger car on a train headed out of Louisiana. The Comité des Citoyens lawyers hoped to argue that the Separate Car Act was unconstitutional, but Desdunes’ case was ultimately dismissed because Judge John H. Ferguson said the law didn’t apply to interstate travel.

Plessy v. Ferguson

The Comité des Citoyens lawyers wanted Plessy to test the law next, and they made sure to have him travel on an intrastate train. On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad and boarded a white passenger car after the conductor was told Plessy was part-black. Plessy was arrested after just 20 minutes, and his attorneys argued that his civil rights had been violated, citing both the the 13th and 14th amendments. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and the 14th includes the Equal Protection Clause, which prevents the State from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Despite this argument, both the Louisiana Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court, in the landmark 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that Plessy’s rights had not been violated and that Louisiana was within its rights to uphold a “separate but equal” way of life for blacks and whites. To avoid jail time, Plessy paid a $25 fine, and the Comité des Citoyens disbanded.

Later Years and Legacy

After his unsuccessful Supreme Court case, Homer Plessy resumed his quiet life. He had three children, sold insurance for a living, and remained an active part of his community. He died at the age 62.

Unfortunately, Plessy did not live to see the impact his act of civil disobedience had on civil rights. While he lost his case, the decision was reversed by the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. In this critical ruling, the high court concluded that “separate but equal” policies violated the rights of people of color, be it in schools or in other capacities. A decade later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in public places as well as employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or country of origin.

Plessy’s contributions to civil rights have not been forgotten. In his honor, the Louisiana House of Representatives and the New Orleans City Council established Homer Plessy Day, first observed on June 7, 2005. Four years later, Keith Plessy, the great-grandson of Homer Plessy’s first cousin, and Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of Judge John H. Ferguson, started the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation to educate the public about the historic case. That year, a marker was also placed at Press and Royal streets, where Plessy was arrested for boarding a whites-only passenger car.

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