Plessy Revisited

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Plessy Revisited
Other than the Dred Scott case, there is probably no more universally despised Supreme Court ruling than the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Today, I’d like to talk about:

  1. Why has there been such a unanimous revision of this opinion?

  2. How can we think about and teach about Plessy in new ways?

I. Into: Teaching Plessy.

A. How Do You Do It?

First, let’s talk about teaching Plessy.

How many of you teach about Plessy? (Show of hands.)

What do your kids know about the case before you teach it?

Let me get 2-3 volunteers to talk briefly about how they teach Plessy.

B. Plessy v. Brown

One classic way to teach the Plessy case is to compare it to the Brown case that overturned it. This is, in fact, how I teach Plessy in the survey course and it’s one of the suggestions for teachers on a website called “” That website gives you a handy chart to compare the sole dissenting opinion in the Plessy case (written by Justice John Marshall Harlan) to the (unanimous) majority opinion in Brown (written by Chief Justice Earl Warren).
Let’s compare the two excerpts from these decisions ourselves.

Take a minute to write one sentence explaining how the decisions are similar and one sentence explaining how they are different.

How are they similar and how are they different?

Why was Harlan the sole dissenter in 1896?

Why was the reversal unanimous in 1954?
C. Drawing Plessy

Another way to teach Plessy is to ask students to draw a political cartoon that takes a position either for or against the decision, once you’ve explained the case to them. I might give students just the barest of outlines and ask them to draw a cartoon.

Louisiana passed a law in the early 1890s segregating railroad cars by race, making it so that blacks rode in one car and whites in another. In 1892, Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man (1/8ths African American), challenged the law by riding in a white RR car. He was arrested, and the Supreme Court ultimately used his case to decide on the Constitutionality of racial segregation. In the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court ruled that separate facilities were constitutional as long as they were equal. This became known as the “separate, but equal” doctrine.

How do the pro-segregation cartoons depict Plessy? Why?

How do the anti-segregation cartoons depict him?

Where’s Ferguson in these drawings?
II. Rethinking Plessy

A. Redrawing Plessy

Let’s take a look at illustrations (and photos!) of Plessy done by others.

Why, if he was 1/8th African American, does he look so dark in these images?

This should make you think twice about using either internet or print images without first checking on the source and also thinking about the biases of the publisher. [As far as I know (though I haven’t done exhaustive research), there are no photographs or illustrations of Homer Plessy done during his lifetime. Extra Credit research challenge: see if you can find an authentic illustration before the institute ends.]

B. Who were Plessy and Ferguson?

The real Homer A. Plessy was a very light-skinned shoemaker, who probably could have passed for white. In fact, Plessy challenged Louisiana’s separate car law with the support of both a local African American/creole civil rights group and white-owned railroad companies.

Why would a white-owned RR company support Plessy’s challenge?

They didn’t want the added expense of buying separate cars unnecessarily.

John Howard Ferguson was a Massachusetts native who had moved to Louisiana after the Civil War. He was what southerners refer to as a “carpetbagger,” and he was a relatively liberal judge in the Louisiana state court system. Before ruling on the Plessy case, Ferguson had ruled on a similar case involving Daniel Desdunes (pass around photo) who was also 1/8ths black. Desdunes had ridden in a white car on an interstate rail line, and Ferguson ruled that interstate segregation was unconstitutional.

Why is he so concerned about the constitutionality of interstate travel?

Why would the Supreme Court (and federal Constitution) have jurisdiction here?
In Plessy, however, Judge Ferguson ruled that RR cars traveling within the state could be segregated as long as they had equal accommodations (as the law required). Instead of appealing the case, Plessy sued Judge Ferguson with a writ of prohibition hoping to halt the criminal case against him. In this suit, Plessy argued two things:
1) Segregation abridged his right to equal protection of the law (14th amendment), AND

2) Since no one could tell that he had black blood, he should have the privileges of whites

Why does he make the second argument?

What might this tell us about race in Louisiana?
C. Biracialism

From my perspective, the Plessy case does tell us about race, but perhaps not the way we always thought it did. Americans (black, white, and other) have always had problems categorizing biracial or multiracial people like Homer Plessy.

How were biracial or multiracial people viewed in 19th century America? “mulatto”

If we understand how scientists viewed mulattos in the 19th century, we have a better sense of why the court (and the public) drew such a hard line on racial segregation.

Let’s take a look at the “evidence” offered by scientific racists to support segregation and the idea that “pure” whites were superior to both mulattos and “pure” blacks. In 1896, an American (German born) statistician named Frederick Hoffman published a book entitled Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro. Though the book came out after the Plessy decision, it offers a synopsis of the racial thinking in the scientific community at the time. [See quotes and statistics.]

Weight of the Brain of White and Colored Soldiers

No. of Cases

Degree of Color

Weight of Brain (in grams)





Three-parts white



Half white



One-fourth white



One-eighth white



One-sixteenth white



Pure negroes


Why does Hoffman argue that mulattos are smarter than “pure blacks”?

Why would Hoffman argue that mulattos were morally & physically inferior to “pure” blacks?

What’s a scrofulous taint? [Here’s extra credit research assignment #2.]

Hoffman argued that although mulattos were smarter than “pure” Africans, they were morally and physically inferior to both “pure” blacks and whites, because of the “unnatural” mixing of the two types of blood.

How did Americans views of multiracial people evolve during the 20th century?

How did Black Power affect our view of multiracial people?

How are biracial and multiracial people viewed today?

III. Multiracialism and the US Census: Culminating Exercise

In the 2000 census, the federal government allowed people to check off multiple racial categories, something that they had actually done before in the 1850s. There was much controversy surrounding this decision to allow multi-racial classifications.

[See maps and graphs.]
Assignment: I’d like for each table to divide in halves. One half come up with arguments in favor of the census giving everyone the option to list multiple racial identities. The other half come up with arguments against listing multiple racial identities. Then debate one another and see who came up with the most convincing arguments.

A couple of tables report out which side won.

IV. Bibliography

Brook Thomas, Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (NY: Bedford Books, 1997)
“Census 2000 Race Contours,” University of Southern California, (viewed 6/15/05)
“Census Scope” Social Science Data Analysis Network, (viewed 6/15/05)
“Minority Links,” US Census Bureau, (viewed 6/15/05)
Supreme Court Historical Society, “Landmark Cases” McGraw-Hill (viewed 6/15/05)

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