Plessy V. Ferguson


On July io, 1890, the Assembly passed the bill, the governor signed it, and it became law. Entitled “An Act to promote the comfort of passengers,” the new law required railroads “to provide equal but separate accommodations lor the white and colored races.” Two members of the Equal Rights Association, L. A. Martinet, editor of the New Orleans Crusader , and R. L. Desdunes, placed heavy blame on the sixteen colored members of the Assembly for the passage of the bill. According to Martinet, “they were completely the masters of the situation.” They had but to withhold their support for a bill desired by the powerful Louisiana Lottery Company until the Jim Crow bill was killed. “But in an evil moment,” he added, “our Representatives turned their ears to listen to the golden siren,” and “did so for a ‘consideration.’”

Putting aside recriminations, the Crusader declared: “The Bill is now a law. The next thing is what we are going to do?” The editor spoke testily of boycotting the railroads, but concluded that “the next thing is…to begin to gather funds to test the constitutionality of this law. We’ll make a case, a test case, and bring it before the Federal Courts.” On September i, 1891, a group of eighteen men of color formed a “Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law.”


Money came in slowly at first, but by October 11, Martinet could write that the committee had already collected $1,500 and that more could be expected “after we have the case well started.” Even before the money was collected, Martinet had opened a correspondence about the case with Albion Winegar Tourgee of May ville, New York, and on October 10 the Citizens’ Committee formally elected Tourgée “leading counsel in the case, from beginning to end, with power to choose associates.”

This action called back into the stream of history a name prominent in the annals of Reconstruction. Albion Tourgée was in 1890 probably the most famous surviving carpetbagger. His fame was due not so much to his achievements as a carpetbagger in North Carolina, significant though they were, as to the six novels about his Reconstruction experiences that he had published since 1879. Born in Ohio, of French Huguenot descent, he had served as an officer in the Union Army, and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1865 to practice law. He soon became a leader of the Radical Republican party, took a prominent part in writing the Radical Constitution of North Carolina, and served as a judge of the superior court for six years with considerable distinction. He brought to the fight against segregation in Louisiana a combination of zeal and ability that the Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans would have found it hard to duplicate. They had reason to write him, “we know we have a friend in you &: we know your ability is beyond question.” He was informed that the committee’s decision was made “spontaneously, warmly, & gratefully.”


Tourgée’s first suggestion was that the person chosen for defendant in the test case be “nearly white,” but that proposal raised some doubts. “It would be quite difficult,” explained Martinet, “to have a lady too nearly white refused admission to a ‘white’ car.” He pointed out that “people of tolerably fair complexion, even if unmistakably colored, enjoy here a large degree of immunity from the accursed prejudice.…To make this case would require some tact.” He would volunteer himself, “but I am one of those whom a fair complexion favors. I go everywhere, in all public places, thotigh well-known all over the city, & never is anything said to me. On the cars it would be the same thing. In fact, color prejudice, in this respect does not affect me. But, as I have said, we can try it, with another.”

Railroad officials proved surprisingly co-operative. The first one approached, however, confessed that his road “did not enforce the law.” It provided the Jim Crow car and posted the required sign, but told its conductors to molest no one who ignored instructions. Officers of two other roads “said the law was a bad and mean one; they would like to get rid of it,” and asked for time to consult counsel. “They want to help us,” said Martinet, “but dread public opinion.” The extra expense of separate cars was one reason for railroad opposition to the Jim Crow law.

It was finally agreed that a white passenger should object to the presence of a Negro in a “white” coach, that the conductor should direct the colored passenger to go to the Jim Crow car, and that he should refuse to go. “The conductor will be instructed not to use force or molest,” reported Martinet, “& our white passenger will swear out the affidavit. This will give us our habeas corpus case, I hope.” On the appointed day, February 24, 1892, Daniel F. Desdunes, a young colored man, bought a ticket for Mobile, boarded the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, and took a seat in the white coach.