"Separate But Equal"

Louisiana in 1900

On May 6, 1896, in the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, the US Supreme Court ruled that it was permissible to maintain separate facilities for Negroes - provided those facilities were equivalent to those for Whites.
This Supreme Court decision provided the legal basis for continued segregation of the nation's school systems. It was not until the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, that this decision was reversed.


The State of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act in 1890. The act required that separate accommodations be provided for blacks and whites on railroads. A group of residents both Black and White were very upset by the law and formed the Comité des Citoyens ( A Committee of Civilians) to fight the law. They persuaded Homer Plessey to test the law. On June 7, 1892 he bought a ticket in a white only car on East Louisiana Railroad. The railroad also opposed the law believing that it would force the company to buy and use more rail cars. The company who knew of the plan made sure that there was a private detective on the train to arrest Plessey and remove him from the train.

Plessey was charged in the case of Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana with violating the law, his defense was that the law violated the 13th and 14th amendments to the constitution. The judge ruled against him stating that the state had the right to regulate transportation inside the state. He was fined $25 The case was appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court which also found for the state.

The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court. Oral argument were held on April 13, 1896. On May 18, 1896 the court handed down its decision upholding the state. The decision was 7 to 1. Justice Brown in summarizing the decision stated : "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in 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 upon it.” Jude Harlan dissented writing:
“In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case."

The decision did indeed become nearly as infamous as Dred Scott. It did not lead to a Civil War, but it did make Separate but Equal the law of the land until 1954 when Brown vs Board of Education reversed the decision.