On a summer day in 1892—120 years ago this year—Homer Plessy boarded a train in New Orleans and sat in the car for white passengers. Plessy, a 30-year-old shoemaker, was mostly white himself: he was an “octoroon”—seven-eighths white and one-eighth African. But that wasn’t white enough. Plessy was violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act, which directed railway companies to provide “equal but separate” accommodations for whites and “coloreds.” The conductor asked him to move to the colored car; he refused and was arrested, and later fined $25.
Plessy appealed, and his case, Plessy v. Ferguson, ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. By a vote of 7-1, the court found the Separate Car Act constitutional. States could not be expected to enforce “a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either,” the high court said. Separating the races in railcars was no different than providing separate schools for whites and coloreds and forbidding interracial marriage, both of which were clearly within a state’s powers, the majority said.
The problem with Plessy’s argument, the court went on, was “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.”