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In 1890, Louisiana passed a law that said that Blacks and Whites have to be separated while riding a train within the state. This would work by having Blacks in one car and Whites in another. The problem was that the black cars weren't as good or as clean as the white cars. There were punishments to make sure the black and white passengers remained separate. For example, if you were a black and you sat in the white car you would either have a fine of $25 or 20 days in jail.
The Court Case Begins
In 1892, a 30-year old shoemaker named Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in a car for only white people on the East Louisiana Railroad. He had refused to move to a black car. Even though he was seven-eighths white and only one-eighth black, he was put in jail. The Louisiana law stated that if you had any black ancestors, you were considered black. Because of this, Plessy was required to sit in the "colored" or "black" car.
In court, Plessy argued that the law violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment states that all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state where they live. It also says that no state can deny citizens of the United States equal protection of the laws. Plessy argued that the Louisiana law violated these amendments because on the train Blacks and Whites could be separate, if it was equal, but it wasn't. The White cars were nicer and cleaner than the Black cars. Judge John Howard Ferguson had recently ruled the law "unconstitutional on trains that traveled through many states," but in this case, Judge Ferguson ruled that Plessy was guilty, because the state had the right to regulate railroad companies that run only in the state.
Mr. Plessy then went to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, because he wanted a second trial to try to end segregation on trains. The Louisiana Supreme Court also went against him. Plessy finally went to the Supreme Court of the United States, because he thought he wasn't guilty. Homer Plessy thought that the "separate but equal" law violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, by Blacks and Whites not being treated equally. In 1896, Homer Plessy was found guilty once again. The court said Mr. Plessy was found guilty, because the Louisiana law did not violate the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. They claimed that Plessy wasn't forced to be a slave and he wasn't being treated unequally, just separately.
Justice John Harlen was the only one who sided with Plessy. He wrote, "Our Constitution is color-blind," and he added that our country is not divided up into Blacks and Whites, or men and women, but that we are all equal. He was concerned that Blacks and Whites would fight over the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and that Blacks and Whites would not be treated equally because of the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy's case.
Even though Plessy did not win his case and was put in jail, the impact of the Plessy vs. Ferguson case was huge. The Plessy decision by the Supreme Court of the United States made people believe that it was right, according to the Constitution, to require Blacks and Whites to have separate restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools, as long as the separate facilities were equal. Even though the Supreme Court of the United States said it was O.K. for Blacks and Whites to be separate, as long as they were equal, it really wasn't like that. For example, in restaurants and busses the Blacks would have to sit in the back. In theaters Blacks would have to sit in the back again. Restrooms were a little different. Blacks and Whites would have totally different rooms, except the White restrooms were cleaner and nicer.
Besides having to sit somewhere different than Whites, Blacks were treated unequally, too. White waiters and waitresses would often wait on Black customers last, or when the waiters or waitresses finally would get there, they'd serve the Blacks cold food. This was only the beginning of how Blacks would be treated for most of the next century.
It was sixty-four years before the "separate but equal" law, started by Plessy v. Ferguson, was finally ruled against by the United States Supreme Court. In the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, it was ruled that separate was not equal in the public school system of Topeka, Kansas. After the Brown vs. Board of Education case, across the United States, it became illegal for Blacks and Whites to be required to go to separate schools. Some Whites were against this and thought that Blacks should still go to separate schools. Parents who were against it sometimes wouldn't send their children to school, if they knew Blacks were attending that school. This is similar to Ruby Bridges or the Central Nine. Until 1954, though, it was still legal to require black people to have separate schools, restrooms, drinking fountains, and neighborhoods in the United States.
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