Homer Plessy pardon attempts to remove historic ‘stain’ of Jim Crow laws

Gov. Edwards clears activist’s name 130 years after he boarded a whites-only section of a train in New Orleans

By: - January 6, 2022 7:00 am
omer Plessy pardon attempts to remove historic ‘stain’ of Jim Crow laws

An historical marker in New Orleans commemorates the spot where Homer Adolph Plessy was arrested on June 7, 1892 at the corner of Press and Royal Streets after sitting in the “whites only” section of a train. His arrest led to the landmark Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, which later became widely derided by scholars for its poor interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

In what he described as an effort to correct a historic injustice from over a century ago, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday posthumously pardoned Homer A. Plessy, a mixed-race Creole arrested 130 years ago and convicted for sitting in a “whites only” section of a train in New Orleans. The court case led to what’s widely considered one of the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions in history and one many feel still lingers over present-day politics and race relations. 

Edwards signed Plessy’s pardon at the request of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, who submitted the application to the Louisiana Board of Pardons. In a news release Wednesday, the governor pointed out that Plessy’s actions in the late 19th century were virtually the same as Rosa Parks’ protest on an Alabama bus in 1955.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad Co. train traveling from New Orleans to Covington when the conductor asked him to move to the “colored car” in accordance with Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890. When he refused, he was arrested.  

His refusal and subsequent arrest was part of a test case orchestrated by the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens’ Committee), a group of prominent New Orleans residents formed to challenge racist laws. 

Plessy’s lawyers argued Louisiana’s law violated the 13th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. However, New Orleans Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled the state had the authority to regulate railroad companies that operated solely within the state of Louisiana.

The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where Plessy v. Ferguson was upheld in a 7-1 decision. According to Yale legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar, it is one of three SCOTUS opinions that “occupy the lowest circle of constitutional hell.” The governor noted it permitted legally enforced segregation on the basis of race and strengthened states’ rights to allow numerous other Jim Crow laws.

Jamila Johnson, attorney at the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, said Plessy v. Ferguson has had lasting effects.

One such example, Johnson said, allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts for felony criminal cases in Louisiana. Even after the Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional in 2020, its justices refused to apply their ruling retroactively, leaving more than a thousand people, most of them Black, in prison on Jim Crow jury verdicts. 

“The stain of this era continues to infect generations of Louisianans,” Johnson said. “Two years after Plessy — and emboldened by Plessy — Louisiana passed a Jim Crow law designed to convict more Black people and silence the voices of Black jurors.”

Louisiana lawmakers had the chance to correct the problem of Jim Crow juries last year with a bill that would have given retroactive relief to those convicted with non-unanimous verdicts. Lawmakers on the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee rejected it in a 5-7 party-line vote with Republicans voting against and Democrats voting in favor.

A ceremony held Wednesday in New Orleans for Plessy’s gubernatorial pardon attracted descendants from both sides of the case.

“With the stroke of his pen, Gov. John Bel Edwards opens a new chapter in the legacy of Homer Adolph Plessy,” descendant Keith Plessy said. “This historic posthumous pardon is proof that 125 years after his conviction, the state of Louisiana, recognizes and honors Plessy for his role in opening the gates of the civil rights movement of the 20th century.”

Phoebe Ferguson, a descendant of the New Orleans judge who convicted Plessy, was also present for the occasion.

“We cannot undo the wrongs of the past but when our government officials publicly acknowledge them and take steps to legally correct them, we give hope to this generation and the next who will continue to be on the front lines in the fight for justice and equity in America,” Ferguson said.

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Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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