Black History Month “separate but equal” The Story of Plessy V. Ferguson

The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson
and America’s Journey from 
Slavery to Segregation
Steve Luxenberg

Plessy v. Ferguson is synonymous with Jim Crow laws and the unjust doctrine of “separate but equal.” But few Americans know more than the name of the case or have more than a superficial understanding of its origins and outcome. In the myth-shattering  book, SEPARATE: The Story of Plessy V. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation (W. W. Norton; February 12, 2019), award-winning author, historian and Washington Post Associate Editor Steve Luxenberg recreates the personalities and debates that informed the Supreme Court’s decision in the Plessy case.

Drawing from letters, diaries, and archival collections, SEPARATE presents  characters from across the United States, such as the resisters from the mixed-race community of French New Orleans, led by Louis Martinet, a lawyer and crusading newspaper editor; Homer Plessy’s lawyer, Ohio-born Albion Tourgée, a best-selling author and the country’s best-known white advocate for civil rights; the Supreme Court justices, including Henry Billings Brown from New England and Michigan, whose majority ruling endorsed separation.  And, John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, the only dissenter whose transformation from slaveholder’s son to a voice for equal rights is nothing short of remarkable.

In the 7-1 decision, written by Justice Brown, the majority ignored or rejected nearly all of the Plessy team’s arguments. Brown was most dismissive of Tourgée’s assertion that separation automatically “stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority,” a construction that Brown said blacks were projecting onto the situation.

Justice Harlan, one of the court’s two Southerners denounced the majority decision in clear and powerful language, declaring that the Constitution was color-blind, that the court had brought dishonor to itself by using color and race as a dividing line, and that the Plessy case would one day be as infamous as the court’s Dred Scott decision.