Many of us are familiar with Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that validated “separate but equal” racial segregation laws well into the mid-20th century.
What you may not know or remember is that Homer Plessy, a Black man who challenged Louisiana’s racial segregation laws by deliberately sitting in a Whites-only train car in 1892, lost his case and paid a $25 fine. He died a convicted criminal in 1925.
Fast forward 97 years to last week, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.
Keith Plessy, a descendent of Homer Plessy and a long-time bellman at the New Orleans Marriott, spent more than a decade educating the public about his family’s case and advocating for a pardon. Last week, Keith stood near Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards as the governor pardoned Homer Plessy posthumously in a moving ceremony in front of the same New Orleans train station where Homer Plessy bought his train ticket 130 years ago.
It was a breathtaking moment and an incredible achievement. I could not be prouder of Keith, who has worked at the New Orleans Marriott for 41 years. He is family. Today, I would like him to share his powerful story which involves lots of twists and turns and some unexpected allies. I cannot think of a better way to honor the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Like Dr. King and Homer Plessy before him, Keith has shown us all how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. I hope you will be as inspired as I am when you read his story.
Growing Up Plessy
We never discussed Homer Plessy at the dinner table growing up and I have professors in my family who never pursued bringing that history to life. It’s a strange fact. I certainly knew Homer’s story though and everyone at work did too.
Shortly after the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1996, Rosa Parks checked into the New Orleans Marriott. Someone told her about me and she asked to meet me. I thought my co-workers were kidding me when they told me, but I knocked on the door of her suite anyway. Cicely Tyson opened the door. She and Ms. Parks were in town filming a project.
I knelt in front of Ms. Parks because she was the mother of the civil rights movement and her act of courage in 1955 was identical to what Homer Plessy did 63 years prior – they both refused to give up a seat designated for white riders and both were arrested for that act of disobedience. Ms. Parks handed me a rose and told me, “Get up! Your name is Plessy. You’ve got work to do.” I felt like I was being knighted. It was surreal. After that, I wanted to learn everything I could about the case so I could share that knowledge with other people, starting with my own family.
In 2004, Keith Weldon Medley – the author of “We as Freemen: Plessy vs. Ferguson – The Fight Against Legal Segregation” – invited me to his book signing in New Orleans. He introduced me to Phoebe Ferguson, a descendent of John H. Ferguson, the judge in the original case.
She started apologizing for segregation, slavery and discrimination. I said, “Stop! You didn’t do any of those things. It’s no longer Plessy vs. Ferguson, it’s Plessy and Ferguson.”
Over the next five years, Phoebe Ferguson and I became good friends. In 2009, we formed the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation to teach the history of the case and its impact on the United States. We focus on preservation by placing markers around New Orleans commemorating significant places and events and we also educate through outreach, speaking at schools, festivals, conferences and historic and academic institutions to spread the message that our mutual history can be a tool to create unity and understanding.
Series of Events
In 2005, New Orleans established June 7 as Homer A. Plessy Day, to acknowledge the day he was arrested.
On January 5, 2022, Gov. Edwards pardoned Homer Plessy. I was there with Phoebe and Kate Dillingham, the great-great-granddaughter of Justice John Harlan, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who cast the lone dissenting vote in favor of Homer Plessy in 1896. Kate is a cellist and she played the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on her cello. It was such a beautiful occasion.
Now I’m told there are plans to dedicate the criminal courtroom where Homer Plessy was convicted. It will be called the Homer Plessy Courtroom.
Keith Plessy’s Reflections
Sometimes when you’re busy and your head is down looking at your work, you don’t realize who you’re influencing. When you finally look up, you say, “Wow, did we do that?” This is one of those moments. The truth is, I hated history in school. Now I know that anyone can be an advocate and like Homer Plessy, all of us can make a difference.