This past May I decided to take a historic walking tour with a local company, not Explore Historic New Orleans, that had access to enter St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery, located along the edge of the French Quarter on Basin Street, features graves from as early as the 18th century with iconic above ground vaults. Effective March 1, the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the general public and limited admission to the families of the interred and tourists accompanied by a licensed tour guide. Before this mandate, I would frequent the cemetery whenever I wanted, but this time I had to go with a guide.
I had heard and read that Homer Plessy was buried at this cemetery. Earlier attempts to find the grave were interrupted by tourist watching at the tomb of Marie Laveau, better known as New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen, or general dawdling through rows of vaults. I never could find Plessy’s tomb on my own, so when I booked my tour I was sure I could rely on the eyes of a professional to point it out to me. May 16th came sooner than I expected and I entered St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 like I had so many times before, except this time with a certified professional.
“Now ladies,” with a nasally inflection, “as we approach the back of the cemetery we will enter the Protestant section.” I followed the group, staying a little behind as a habit. But as I followed, I happened to casually looked to my right and see Homer Adolph Plessy’s nameplate.
“Holy shit, it’s Homer Plessy!” flew out my mouth like a word vomit. The two other women on our tour looked back at me, only to continue to hurry towards our guide in the Protestant section. While I followed my group for the rest of the tour, I remained distracted by our tour guide’s complete dismissal of Homer Plessy. Now, I am a history student, so I’m the first to admit I can get pretentious on a snap when it comes to history, but when it came to the story of Plessy and the doctrine of “separate but equal,” I was astonished when it went overlooked.
Homer Adolph Plessy is known for his role in the 1896 Supreme Court Case Plessy v Ferguson. The ruling established the doctrine of “separate but equal” that legitimized Jim Crow era segregation until its reversal with Brown v Board of Education, in 1954. Born in 1862, Plessy witnessed a number of changes in Louisiana’s race relations throughout his lifetime. But, his decision to challenge segregation on a train in June of 1892 is a mere thread in the intricate history of both African Americans and civil disobedience in New Orleans after the Civil War.
In many ways, Plessy’s decision to sit in a whites-only railroad car did not aim to pressure Louisiana law into new and unchartered civil rights territory. Homer Plessy sat to defend the rights he had before the passage of the Separate Car Act of 1890. The decades between 1865 and 1890 granted the black population of New Orleans many freedoms not previously allotted. This is not to say that segregation and discrimination did not exist in this brief era—African Americans were plagued by the reality of racial inequality—but before the advent of Jim Crow legislation, the lines were a bit unclear.
During Reconstruction, Radical Republicans in Louisiana pushed for the passage of civil rights legislation that provided additional legal freedoms to Free Persons of Color and freed slaves. Four months before the 14th amendment became federal law, in 1868, Louisiana had rewritten their state constitution to guarantee the black population’s equal political and civil rights and to desegregate publically funded schools. Members of the black population now served on juries, in the state legislature, and in the Governor’s office.
But in 1871, when black students began to enter formerly all-white schools, the Metairie Racecourse sanctioned segregated seating on its grounds. And although Governor P B S Pitchback served from December 1872 to January 1873, five violent massacres and riots in 1873-1874 made it clear that Louisiana was in no way a safe haven for Southern blacks. Louisiana’s history between 1865 and 1877 features a complicated mix of civil rights and unequal social norms. When the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction and removed Radical Republicans from positions of power in Southern state governments, racial lines in Louisiana, and specifically New Orleans got a bit more puzzling.
By 1879, two years after the end of Reconstruction, the state legislature ratified a new constitution that returned Louisiana to home rule and called for restricted rights for black voters. But these legal terms had little effect in certain social spheres—most notably on trains. George Washing Cable wrote, in The Negro Question, “In Louisiana, certain railway trains and steamboats run side by side, within a mile of one another, where in the trains a Negro or mulatto may sit where he will, and on the boats he must confine himself to a separate quarter called the ‘Fredman’s bureau.’”
In 1882 when the Louisiana and Nashville Railroad added a separate black waiting room in its New Orleans depot, communities demanded the company end this policy. The Weekly Louisianian reported that within the year the railroad company complied. By 1887, our main character, Homer Plessy had become vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club in New Orleans—an organization dedicated to educational reform. At the age of 25, Plessy was well aware of the blurred racial order in New Orleans that pinned blacks to second class citizenry while achieving mild integration.
With the passage of the Separate Car Act of 1890, the unclear lines of segregation came into a stark focus. The Comite des Citoyans, or Citizens’ Committee, formed the following year to challenge the growing influence of racial segregation, and more specifically, the Separate Car Act. But, by time that the Comite des Citoyans asked Plessy to board a whites-only train car, they had experienced their first blow. Before Homer Plessy, the committee asked Daniel Desdunes to challenge the Separate Car Act. On February 24, 1892, Desdune boarded a white car on the Lousiana and Nashville railroad after purchasing a first class ticket. The committee believed Desdunes would cause a legal stir because his trip attempted to cross state lines, ending in Montgomery, AL. Daniel Desdunes was arrested and later released on a $500 bond. All charges against Daniel Desdunes were dropped before the Comite des Citoyans’ legal team could attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the law. It was decided the Separate Car Act held no legitimacy when crossing state lines. Judge John Ferguson of the Criminal District Court of Orleans Parish called for Desdunes’ release.
On June 7 of the same year, the Comite des Citoyans attempted again to challenge the law, this time with Homer Plessy. He purchased a ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad from New Orleans to Covington, purposefully remaining within the state, and sat in a whites-only car. When the conductor reached for Plessy’s ticket, Plessy notified him that despite his light complexion, he was only 7/8 white. When asked to move to the blacks-only car, Homer Plessy refused. Judge Ferguson, who ordered the release of Desdunes, convicted Plessy of breaking the law. The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to grant a rehearing. A potential writ of error allowed the case to move up to the Supreme Court of the United States in April 1896, four years later. On May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion that “separate but equal” was constitutional. By 1898, Louisiana redrafted their constitution to segregate the public schools and disenfranchise black voters. Within two years, Jim Crow laws made it clear that the races would be separated.
On my walk back to the car from Basin Street, I couldn’t help but think of the guide’s missed opportunity to discuss a complex portion of New Orleans’ history. Tour guides may not have time to go into too much depth in 90 minute tours, but a disregard to certain aspects of African American history might be why so many believe the Civil Rights Movement began when Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a bus 63 years later. It was a similar message, but with a different carrier—or in this case, mode of transportation. When the Archdioceses of New Orleans required licensed guides to interpret the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, it raised the question of what histories would be told and which we would walk swiftly past.