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The Posthumous Pardon of Homer Plessy

On January 5, 2022, the governor of Louisiana posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy, the defendant in the famous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy is known for affirming the legal theory of “separate but equal” that was used to justify Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was later overturned in part by Brown v. Board of Education.

Plessy involved a Louisiana law called the Separate Car Act, which required separate railway cars for Black and white riders. If a person violated the Separate Car Act, they were subject to criminal penalties. According to the case, Homer Plessy was 7/8 white and 1/8 Black (technically considered Black under Louisiana law) but he attempted to sit in a whites-only car, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment.

Image of a statute from the book "Acts Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana," with statutory text of the Separate Car Act

Act No. 111, The Separate Car Act, from Acts Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana. Photo taken by Anna Price.

In his defense, Plessy argued that separate facilities for different races violated his 14th Amendment rights. The Supreme Court eventually granted review of this case and rejected Plessy’s assertions.

The majority’s opinion conceded that the 14th Amendment’s purpose was to create equality among races, but the Court held that the intended equality was political, rather than social, and decided that having separate railway cars, which were similarly situated, did not imply that one race was inferior to another. In one passage, the majority opinion noted, “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” The lone dissenter, Justice John Harlan, reasoned that the Constitution is colorblind and does not tolerate the idea of classes of citizens.

Louisiana’s pardoning of Plessy is the first such act under a state law that expedites the pardon process for criminal convictions stemming from laws that were in place “to maintain or enforce racial separation or discrimination of individuals.”


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6 Comments

  1. maria v. lievano de malik
    January 19, 2022 at 10:18 pm

    Extraordinaria informaciĆ³n. Me ha impresionado mucho.
    Gracias. MVL

  2. Georgia Chadwick
    January 19, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    There is a nice story behind the Plessy decision. The descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge Ferguson have worked together to tell the story of their ancestors. They have received press about their work in The Washington Post and The New York Times and in other sources. Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson founded the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation to continue to share the story of the Plessy case.
    https://www.plessyandferguson.org/press

  3. Phoebe Ferguson
    January 20, 2022 at 2:19 am

    This is so exciting to see the news in the Library of Congress blog.

    The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation

  4. Janet
    January 20, 2022 at 8:00 am

    Plessy’s Case invites us to reflect on whether we still need to return and rethink civil rights in our society today.

    Thank you for remembering your bravery.

  5. Janet Gutierrez
    January 20, 2022 at 9:17 am

    Plessy’s Case invites us to reflect and return to civil rights in today’s society.

    Thank you for remembering your bravery

  6. Keith M. Plessy
    January 20, 2022 at 11:34 am

    Thank you for posting this very informative article. This Posthumous Pardon for Homer Plessy is a single step in a thousand mile journey of obtaining Justice for anyone who has been or, who is being charged with violating a law that promotes and enforces discrimination.

    The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation

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