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.

Courtesy of The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation
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.

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.

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."

Phoebe Ferguson, a documentary filmmaker living in New York, hadn't learned of her infamous great-great grandfather until she received a call a few years ago from someone who had bought Judge Ferguson's former home in New Orleans. He wanted to find descendants to learn more about the house. Growing up in New Orleans, she was told nothing of her connection to Judge Ferguson. After the call she rushed to look at a family tree her sister had just sent her. There was Judge Ferguson.

"I was like 'Oh, my God'" Ms. Ferguson says. "I was pretty taken aback." She had grown up in New Orleans with segregation and Jim Crow laws and had seen the hardships and heartbreaks those laws created.

She was introduced to Keith Plessy in 2004 by Keith Weldon Medley, the author of the book “We as Freemen – Plessy v. Ferguson – The Fight Against Legal Segregation.”

"I went up to [Keith Plessy] and said, 'Hi, I'm Phoebe Ferguson.' And he said, 'I'm Keith Plessy.' And suddenly I felt overwhelmed by this guilt, I guess," she says, recalling that day. "It just came out, I guess. And he said, 'Hey, it's no longer Plessy versus Ferguson. It's Plessy and Ferguson.'

"That was amazing. We realized that we were both just fascinated with the history and the genealogy of [the case], and that we both really cared about it."
Mr. Plessy, a doorman at a New Orleans hotel, and Ferguson have become good friends since and in 2009 formed the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.

After appearing at a number of events together they realize that they have become a symbol of how attitudes toward race have changed over the past century.

"Sometimes we don't have to do or say anything, it's just [people seeing] that we are friends," Ferguson says. "But obviously we have a lot we want to do."

The foundation has erected a historical plaque on the site where Plessy was arrested and another that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the integration of New Orleans public schools in 1960. They hope to move the foundation into a building that will be part of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

The site would have exhibition space and the foundation's offices. It would be "a place where people can actually talk about race and have forums on difficult subjects," Ferguson says.

Though both still have other jobs now, "We hope that in the near future this will be a full-time job. We have a lot of initiatives we'd like to get off the ground."

She has become an advocate for the New Orleans public schools, which still have a long way to go to recover from 2005's Hurricane Katrina, she says.

Ferguson had been living in New York working on a documentary film about New Orleans' African American social clubs called “Member of the Club” when the hurricane hit.

She rounded up a rental truck full of supplies and hurried back to the city. Nearly everyone seen in her film "was wiped out" by Katrina, she says.

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