Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background Summary & Questions (••)

In 1890, Louisiana passed a statute called the Separate Car Act. This law declared that all rail companies carrying passengers in Louisiana had to provide separate but equal accommodations for white and non-white passengers. The penalty for sitting in the wrong compartment was a fine of $25 or 20 days in jail.

Two parties wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act. A group of black citizens who raised money to overturn the law worked together with the East Louisiana Railroad Company, which sought to terminate the Act largely for monetary reasons. They chose a 30-year-old shoemaker named Homer Plessy, a citizen of the United States who was one-eighth black and a resident of the state of Louisiana. On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class passage from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana and sat in the railroad car for "White" passengers. The railroad officials knew Plessy was coming and arrested him for violating the Separate Car Act. Well known advocate for black rights Albion Tourgee, a white lawyer, agreed to argue the case for free.

Plessy argued in court that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment requires that the government treat people equally. John Howard Ferguson, the judge hearing the case, had stated in a previous court decision that the Separate Car Act was unconstitutional if applied to trains running outside of Louisiana. In this case, however, he declared that the law was constitutional for trains running within the state and found Plessy guilty.

Plessy appealed the case to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision that the Louisiana law was constitutional. Plessy then took his case, Plessy v. Ferguson, to the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the country. Judge John Howard Ferguson was named in the case because he had been named in the petition to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, not because he was a party to the initial lawsuit.

Questions to Consider
  1. What law did Homer Plessy violate? How did Plessy violate this law? 
  2. What rights do the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments provide? Why did Plessy believe that the Separate Car Act violated these rights?
  3. Judge Ferguson decided that the state could make laws for railroad companies that traveled within the state but not for those that traveled between states. On what basis can Judge Ferguson treat these two situations differently?
  4. What claim did Plessy make to the Louisiana State Supreme Court? How did his claim reflect on his argument that his Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated? 
  5. Do you think it is possible for blacks and whites to be separate and equal? Why or why not? If so, describe a situation where people can be separate, but equal.
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