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

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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The Impact of the Case: Separate But Equal

Although not specifically written in the decision, Plessy set the precedent that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were "equal." The "separate but equal" doctrine was quickly extended to cover many areas of public life, such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools.

The Supreme Court of the United States determined that if legislation makes distinctions based on race, but does not deprive anyone of rights or privileges, it is constitutional. The Court seemed to believe that the common practice of separation was an inconvenience, not something that abridged the rights of African Americans. The Court also presumed that legislation was powerless to do away with racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences.

Directions

Think about the following situations. Each situation offers separate accommodations for the people involved. Are those accommodations equal? Do you think the Supreme Court of the United States considered all possible situations when they rendered their decision in Plessy v. Ferguson? Discuss each situation with your classmates.

  • A black woman is thirsty, so she walks over to the water fountains. There is one fountain for blacks and one for whites. The black woman uses the fountain for whites because the other one is out of order. 
  • A black man has been traveling for many hours. He stops at a diner to eat and use the restroom. This diner only serves whites. In order to eat, the black man must travel another two hours to another diner that serves blacks. The black man cannot wait two hours to use the restroom, so he uses the diner's restroom despite the posted signs. 

  • A white man is not allowed to have his colored attendant with him in the same train coach even though the white man's health condition requires constant supervision. The colored attendant ignores the rules and sits beside his employer in the coach for white passengers. 

  • A black seven-year-old girl must walk two miles to the nearest school for blacks even though there is a school two blocks away. The school two blocks away is only for white students. The girl's parents worry about their daughter walking such a long distance to and from school everyday.

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