125 years ago today, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that a Louisiana law barring African Americans from riding the same streetcars as White people was entirely constitutional.
The case, instigated as an act of civil disobedience in part by a free Black Catholic New Orleanian named Homère (Homer) Adolphe Plessy, was burned into our memories as Plessy v. Ferguson—one of the earliest instances of Supreme Court-sanctioned White Supremacy.
Today, some 67 years after the case was overturned on paper in Brown v Board of Education, the descendants of both Plessy and Judge John Howard Ferguson will gather—along with a variety of interlocutors—for a free virtual webinar commemorating the progress made and the work yet to be done.
The event is entitled “Together: The 125th Anniversary of Separate but Equal”, and will also include descendants of Brown v. Board, and Dred Scott v. Sanford—in which Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the first Catholic on the Supreme Court, wrote in his majority opinion the Consititution never meant to include African Americans as citizens.
(The latter case ruled that enslaved Blacks were not automatically freed by residing states where slavery was illegal.)
Also present for today's event will be descendants of Justice John Marshall Harlan—the lone dissenting voice in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the men in the 1896 streetcar case, are respectively the president and executive director of the foundation hosting the event, having founded it in 2009.
(Keith is the 1st cousin three times removed of Homer Plessy, and Phoebe the great-great-granddaughter of Judge John Howard Ferguson.)
Rather than Plessy versus Ferguson, however, their organization is aptly titled the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.
Their event today will occur in two parts, beginning with an educational session from 1-3pm CST featuring Amy Nathan (author of a new book on Plessy v. Ferguson) and local New Orleans educators.
The second leg, from 7-8:45pm CST, will focus on law, including a keynote from former Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, a presentation from Senior Circuit Judge Douglas Ginsburg, and a panel consisting of the aforementioned descendants.
Music (read: jazz) at the beginning and end of the two sessions will be provided by Dr. Michael White, a local New Orleans performer and educator—and Black Catholic. He will be joined by his band(s).
Interested parties can register for the day’s activities on Eventbrite.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).