Plessy vs. Ferguson: The meaning of the “one-drop” rule

Homer Adolf Plessy purchased a ticket from New Orleans to Covington and took a seat in the “white” section of the East Louisiana Railroad Company train. Railroad officials ordered Plessy to the “colored” car. When he refused, a police officer forcibly ejected Plessy and hurried him off to the parish jail in New Orleans. Officials charged Plessy with violating a recently enacted state law—one of many Jim Crow laws enacted in the late 1800s as whites moved to entrench their power in state governments–that barred persons from occupying rail cars other than those to which their race had been assigned.

Had railroad officials not been notified in advance that Homer Plessy was one-eighth black, he undoubtedly could have taken his seat in the “white” section of the train. Plessy appeared to be white. Louisiana, however, applied “the one drop rule”: anyone with one drop of non-white blood was classified as “colored” under the Louisiana code. Plessy gave up the privilege that he might have enjoyed as the result of his light pigmentation because he shared the goals of the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law, a New Orleans group of blacks and Creoles. The Committee believed that a white-appearing plaintiff such as Plessy might be more likely to obtain the sympathy of a court reviewing the Louisiana law.

If found guilty, Plessy faced a possible fine of $25 and a sentence of up to twenty days in jail. Plessy challenged the Louisiana Separate Car Law, arguing that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. In October of 1895, the United States Supreme Court heard Plessy’s arguments.

The Court upheld Louisiana’s Separate Car Law in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. In so doing, it announced the legal principle, “separate but equal,” that would guide American race relations for over half a century. Justice Henry Brown’s opinion, reflecting no understanding of racial realities in America, reads as though written by a Martian: “The underlying fallacy of plaintiff’s argument consists of the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it.” John Marshall Harlan offered a lone dissent. Justice Harlan, in a ringing passage—one suggested in a brief filed by Plessy’s lawyer, Albion Tourgee–argued “our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

Segregation seemed destiny in 1895. In addition to the Supreme Court arguments in Plessy, the year saw the passing of the great Negro leader Frederick Douglass and the emergence of a new black spokesperson, Booker T. Washington. Unlike Douglass, who pressed for full and immediate integration, Booker Washington accepted social separation of the races. In a famous speech delivered in September 1895 at the Cotton State’s Exposition in Atlanta, Booker Washington declared that “in all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” It was a message much of white America could endorse. The Atlanta Constitution wrote “the whole speech is a platform on which the whites and blacks can stand with full justice to each race.”

Another event in the fall of 1895 that would prove momentous for black America passed virtually unnoticed. On September 3, in a modest house just blocks from the Supreme Court, a black hairdresser named Mary Hamilton Houston gave birth to a son, Charles Hamilton Houston (after Charles I), who one day would command the attack that would kill Jim Crow.

Culled from: Douglas O. Linder, “Before Brown: Charles H. Houston and the Gaines Case”

One thought on “Plessy vs. Ferguson: The meaning of the “one-drop” rule”

  1. Great article. Plessy v. Ferguson institutionalized American Apartheid, or as it was commonly know, Jim Crow. More on Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson), and key historical events and figures affecting African Americans can be fond here:

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