Relatives in landmark segregation case form bond

Published 3:06 pm Thursday, June 9, 2011

More than a century after Homer Plessy’s railroad ride across Lake Pontchartrain became the basis of the country’s Jim Crow laws, the descendants of Plessy and the judge who upheld the “separate but equal” laws are working together to help stamp out racism.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy boarded a white-only railroad car in New Orleans in a well-choreographed, deliberate violation of Louisiana law. The 30-year-old black shoemaker was arrested and a citizens’ group who supported his civil disobedience sued, beginning a case often cited as one of the starting points of the modern civil rights movement.

Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled in the state’s favor. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1896 the justices upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine. The court reversed course with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

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Fifty years after the Brown case, relatives of Plessy and Ferguson met and together, they now run a foundation providing civil rights education, preservation and outreach.

“When I first met her I said, ‘It’s not Plessy vs. Ferguson anymore. Now it’s Plessy and Ferguson. I had no idea that would become the name of our foundation,” said Keith Plessy, who met Phoebe Ferguson in 2004 when they both attended a book signing.

A friendship quickly formed, and the foundation was created in 2009.

“So far, we’ve been doing what people did when they formed the Citizens’ Committee in the first place,” Plessy said. “They saw something that needed to be done and did it. We’re trying to do the same.”

Keith Plessy grew up knowing what his great-grandfather’s cousin had done, leading discussions in school. Ferguson, 54, a documentary film maker who grew up in New York, didn’t learn about her connection to the case until she was contacted by a man who had purchased a home her great-great-grandfather owned in New Orleans.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Ferguson said. “I don’t think my parents knew, and my older brother and sister never said anything.”

Ferguson said the association made her uncomfortable.

“I didn’t make the decision, but I feel a responsibility for it,” said Ferguson, who moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

Keith Plessy, also 54, believes the two were meant to meet.

“We’re both from New Orleans and we’re both born in the same year — 1957— the same year the Little Rock Nine integrated a school in Arkansas,” said Plessy, who has worked at a New Orleans hotel for 30 years. “We were destined to become friends.”

The foundation works to honor the civil rights movement and put up plaques to identify historic sites in Louisiana. So far, they have erected one to mark the 50th anniversary of integrated schools in New Orleans and marked the site where Homer Plessy boarded the train.

The foundation also teaches about Homer Plessy’s strategy of deliberate disobedience.

“That part of our history is so poorly taught in American text books,” Ferguson said. “What we like to do is go to classrooms and bring a living legacy to the room.”

Tulane University historian Lawrence Powell said the lessons are needed.

“But it’s not so much what’s being taught as what the two of them together symbolize — that there is the possibility of reconciliation,” he said.

Tuesday night, Plessy, Ferguson and othermet at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts to celebrate Plessy Day with civil rights-themed performances and readings.

“It’s good to see something good coming out of that ruling and that time,” Plessy said. “Phoebe and I both wanted that.”