Plessy V. Ferguson


In the spring of 1885, Charles Dudley Warner, Mark Twain’s friend, neighbor, and onetime collaborator from Hartford, Connecticut, visited the International Exposition at New Orleans.


In the spring of 1885, Charles Dudley Warner, Mark Twain’s friend, neighbor, and onetime collaborator from Hartford, Connecticut, visited the International Exposition at New Orleans. He was astonished to find that “white and colored people mingled freely, talking and looking at what was of common interest,” that Negroes “took their full share of the parade and the honors,” and that the two races associated “in unconscious equality of privileges.” During his visit he saw “a colored clergyman in his surplice seated in the chancel of the most important white Episcopal church in New Orleans, assisting in the service.”

It was a common occurrence in the i88o’s for foreign travellers and northern visitors to comment, sometimes with distaste and always with surprise, on the freedom of association between white and colored people in the South. Yankees in particular were unprepared for what they found and sometimes estimated that conditions below the Potomac were better than those above. There was discrimination, to be sure, and Negroes were often excluded from first-class public accommodations—as they were in the North. But that was done on the responsibility of private owners or managers and not by requirement of law. According to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 the federal law gave no protection from such private acts.

Where discrimination existed it was often erratic and inconsistent. On trains the usual practice was to exclude Negroes from first-class or “ladies’ ” cars but to permit them to mix with whites in second-class or “smoking” cars. In the old seaboard states of the South, however, Negroes were as free to ride first class as whites. In no state was segregation on trains complete, and in none was it enforced by law. The age of Jim Crow was still to come.

The first genuine Jim Crow law requiring railroads to carry Negroes in separate cars or behind partitions was adopted by Florida in 1887. Mississippi followed this example in 1888; Texas in 1889; Louisiana in 1890; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee in 1891; and Kentucky in 1892. The Carolinas and Virginia did not fall into line until the last three years of the century.

Negroes watched with despair while the legal foundations for the Jim Crow system were laid and the walls of segregation mounted around them. Their disenchantment with the hopes based on the Civil War amendments and the Reconstruction laws was nearly complete by 1890. The American commitment to equality, solemnly attested by three amendments to the Constitution and by elaborate civil rights acts, was virtually repudiated. The “compromise of 1877” between the Hayes Republicans and the southern conservatives had resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the formal end of Reconstruction. What had started then as a retreat had within a decade turned into a rout. Northern radicals and liberals had abandoned the cause: the courts had rendered the Constitution helpless; the Republican party had forsaken the cause it had sponsored. A tide of racism was mounting in the country unopposed.

The colored community of New Orleans, with its strong infusion of French and other nationalities, was in a strategic position to furnish leadership for the resistance against segregation. Many of these people had culture, education, and some wealth, as well as a heritage of several generations of freedom. Unlike the great majority of Negroes, they were city people with an established professional class and a high degree of literacy. By ancestry as well as by residence they were associated with Latin cultures at variance with AngloAmerican ideas of race relations. Their forebears had lived under the Code Noir decreed for Louisiana by Louis XIV, and their city faced out upon Latin America.

When the Jim Crow car bill was inirocluced in the Louisiana legislature, New Orleans Negroes organized to fight it. Negroes were still voting in large numbers, and there were sixteen colored senators and representatives in the Louisiana General Assembly. On May 24, 1890, that body received “A Protest of the American Citizens’ Equal Rights Association of Louisiana Against Class Legislation.” An organization of colored people, the association protested that the pending bill was “unconstitutional, unamerican, unjust, dangerous and against sound public policy.” It would, declared the protest, “be a free license to the evilly-disposed that they might with impunity instdt, humiliate, and otherwise maltreat inoffensive persons, and especially women and children who should happen to have a dark skin.”