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Descendants team up to teach the positive lessons of the infamous 'Plessy v. Ferguson'

Descendants of the two parties in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the notorious 'separate but equal' doctrine that legally justified segregation, have joined to create a foundation to advocate for better racial harmony.

By Staff Writer / June 10, 2011

Keith Plessy (center) and Phoebe Ferguson (right) have formed the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. They are descendants of the protagonists in the legal case (Plessy v. Ferguson) in which the US Supreme Court in 1896 held that 'separate but equal' public facilities were compatible with the US Constitution. Though the Plessy case was lost, it was an early effort to gain full legal rights for African-Americans.

Courtesy of The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation

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Long before Rosa Parks in 1955 refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., to protest racial segregation, Homer Plessy had already been on a hot seat.

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In 1892, Mr. Plessy, a shoemaker of mixed racial heritage, sat down in a "whites only" railroad car New Orleans defiantly expecting to be arrested as part of a planned protest.

He was. The resulting court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, eventually went to the US Supreme Court, which found against Plessy and for New Orleans Judge John Howard Ferguson, who had first ruled against Plessy. As a result the notorious concept of "separate but equal" treatment of African-Americans became set in US law until finally overturned in 1954's landmark case Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka.

[Editor's note: The original version of this article misspelled the full name of Judge Ferguson.]

Plessy v. Ferguson may seem like a historical embarrassment today, a court case best quietly forgotten. But two friends in New Orleans think it has lessons to teach.

Two years ago Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy – each a descendent of a party in the case – formed the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit group aimed at telling the stories of Homer Plessy and Judge Ferguson as well as advocating for better racial understanding today. On June 7, they helped mark Homer A. Plessy Day in New Orleans, commemorating the anniversary of Plessy's fateful arrest.

Though his court case was lost, it helped spark the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the later use of nonviolent civil disobedience to promote civil rights.

It also became known for the "Great Dissent" written by John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner from Kentucky who was the only Supreme Court justice to disagree with the majority in the 7-1 decision. "Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law," Justice Harlan wrote. "The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race ... cannot be justified upon any legal grounds."

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