Podcast #33: Plessy V. Ferguson and the emergence of Segregation in the United States

“It was not, then, race and culture calling out of the South in 1876; it was property and privilege, shrieking to its own kind, and privilege and property heard and recognized the voice of its own.”
― W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880

19 minutes of recordings.

Jim Crow laws were named after a song “Jump Jim Crow” which was performed by whites in blackface. These were common depictions in vaudeville shows throughout the country. In the post Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow Laws restricted the rights provided to Black Americans from the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

By the 1890s, Southern States began passing laws that disenfranchised African American Males.

Violations to voting rights. Couldn’t deny someone the right to vote based on their race. They could and did pass other laws which denied many black men and eventually women once the 19th amendment was passed with the creation of poll taxes and literacy tests and the Grandfather Clause.

Poll Taxes were expected to be paid when registering to vote and then each year you voted. Some states required payment months before the election and in some states the poll taxes were cumulative. So if you couldn’t afford to pay the poll tax last year, now you had to pay last years and this years. In Georgia, all men were required to pay a poll tax between the ages of 21-60. It was a cumulative tax starting from the age of 21.

Literacy tests weren’t simple. They were made purposefully difficult. In some states, one wrong answer meant a failing grade. You can download examples of literacy tests and show them to your students. Try to answer the questions yourself in the time allotted. Most people today would fail them. In some places the questions were chosen at the discretion of the official. In some cases, you could have been asked to recite the Declaration of Independence from memory.

Grandfather Clause: many times we hear the phrase of someone being grandfathered in. That phrase has historical roots. According to this, If you were eligible to vote in before 1867 or your Grandfather was able to vote before 1867, you could bypass literacy tests or poll taxes and be eligible to vote. This prevented poor southern whites from being disenfranchised along with black males.

White primaries were held in many southern states. The Democratic Party held white only primaries. If you know that after 1877 when Reconstruction ends, the south was known as the solid south as they solidly voted for Democratic candidates.

Violence or intimidation was used against black men who attempted to exercise their right to vote. In some places the names of people who attempted to vote were printed in local newspapers and labeled as troublemakers. Many people were fired from their jobs because their employer saw their name listed in the newspaper. People were beaten for attempting to exercise their right to vote. People went to jail for attempting to exercise their right to vote.

Jim Crow Laws didn’t just restrict voting rights. They restricted the lives of Black Americans socially and economically. In 1883 a group of 5 civil rights cases brought before the US Supreme Court had the court rule 8-1 that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was Unconstitutional. In each of those individual cases, African Americans were denied access to a business because of their race. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 stipulated that businesses couldn’t deny access to or service to an individual on the basis of race. The decision of the court was that individuals or business owners have the right to decide who they will allow access to their business to. That denying to serve someone is not the same as slavery. With this decision, segregation becomes a common practice throughout the country.

A Famous Supreme Court Case Plessy v. Ferguson takes it one step further.

Before we talk about the case, we have to talk a bit about Homer Plessy and the conditions within the state of Louisiana that led to the court case.

The Separate Car Act required that all Louisiana railroad cars have “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races. The Law also punished owners of railways or conductors with a large fine if they didn’t comply and with the passengers who could be fined or jailed for attempting to ride in a car that was designated for another race.

So why Louisiana? It’s important to look at the history of the state, specifically, New Orleans and its population. Once upon a time, Louisiana was a French Colony. During that time, you see intermarriage between blacks and whites. Some men freeing their wives and children upon marriage. It was known as the Placage system. The women of color who married white men didn’t have the same legal recognition for the marriages as white women did who married white men. In addition, you also see a significant influx of Haitian Immigrants after the Haitian Revolution. When Louisiana is purchased by the US, things change for Blacks living in Louisiana whether enslaved or free. When Louisiana becomes a state in 1812, things change some more. By the mid-1800s, New Orleans is one of the largest cities in the US. By the time of the Civil War, you see the migration of freed blacks from Louisiana because of their restrictions. Why live in bondage there when you can live more freely somewhere else? So it is important to understand that there is this significantly sized mixed race population within Louisiana. In the post Reconstruction Era in Louisiana and in the rest of the Southern US, you see states passing segregation laws, like the separate car act.

A Civil Rights group in Louisiana which was known as the Citizen’s Committee planned to test this law. Homer Plessy, a local 30-year-old shoe maker was chosen due to his appearance and ability to pass as white and be able to purchase a first class train ticket. Homer Plessy was considered an Octoroon. He was 1/8th black but under the eyes of the law, he was black. Many states used the one drop rule to determine an individual’s race. It didn’t matter how you identified yourself or what you looked like. The state of Virginia for example passed Racial Integrity laws which legally banned people of different races from intermarrying. The committee of citizens had the plot well planned out. They had raised the funds needed to test the legality of the law. Understand this was very much an example of Civil Disobedience. The Railroad company was in on it, the committee even hired a private detective who would ensure that Plessy was arrested for violating the separate car act and not some other type of misdemeanor charge. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy boarded the first class train car and when asked if he was white he answered that he was 7/8 white. He was told to move to the black train car. Plessy refused and was arrested. He was charged with violating the separate car act and his lawyer argued that the low violated the rights protected by the 13th and 14th amendments. The first judge to hear that case was a man by the last name of Ferguson. Hence the name of the Supreme Court Case, Plessy v. Ferguson. Judge Ferguson upheld the act stating that the state had the right to regulate businesses that were operating within its borders. Plessy and his lawyers appealed the case. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the judge’s ruling without rehearing the case. They then appealed to the US Supreme Court which is the final stop. In April of 1896, the US Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson began. A little over a month later the court issued its ruling in a 7-1 decision. Justice Henry Brown wrote the courts majority ruling in which he stated “The act didn’t violate the 13th amendment because it didn’t establish any condition of involuntary servitude and it didn’t violate the 14th amendment because it didn’t restrict blacks any differently than whites.” This ruling legitimized segregation. The lone Justice to dissent was John Marshall Harlan and in his dissenting opinion he stated “Our Constitution is color blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” As a result of this Supreme Court Case, Separate but equal became the status quo. It was separate but understand it was anything but equal. Not only would train cars and busses be segregated, but restaurants, hotels, waiting rooms, and schools and other public facilities would be segregated. This would not be changed until the Supreme Court Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954 and it would take the Civil Rights Movement to begin the process of protecting the rights of Black Americans in the United States.

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