Homer Plessy's Anti-Segregation Legal Fight Gets New Coda

By Ivan Moreno | March 24, 2023, 7:02 PM EDT ·

Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy

After their first meeting two decades ago, Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy, descendants of the opposing parties in the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, have worked together to help educate people about the ruling and the legacy of segregation. (Courtesy of Phoebe Ferguson)

The New Orleans street where Homer Plessy was arrested in 1892 for boarding a train reserved for white riders is now called Homer Plessy Way — a tribute made possible by two descendants of the opposing sides in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upholding racial segregation.

Amy Nathan

Amy Nathan

Keith Plessy, Homer Plessy's first cousin three generations removed, and Phoebe Ferguson, the great-great-granddaughter of Judge John H. Ferguson, the state judge who initially presided over the case, were both born in New Orleans in 1957, but didn't meet until decades later. They have since made it their mission to educate people about how Homer Plessy's act of civil disobedience led to one of the most notorious rulings in the court's history.

His arrest and eventual conviction was a wrong that has taken generations to correct.

A book about their unlikely friendship, "Together," has a second edition due out in June that adds a new coda to Homer Plessy's legal saga. Nearly 125 years to the day when Plessy pled guilty in January 1897 and paid a $25 fine for violating the state's Separate Car Act, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards finally pardoned him last year for his act of civil disobedience.

The book's author, Amy Nathan, recently spoke to Law360 about Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson's shared history, their petition for Homer Plessy's pardon, and how they replaced the "versus" of Plessy v. Ferguson with "and" to form the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation in 2009 to help educate people about the case and the legacy of segregation. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What do you hope readers learn from the story of Keith and Phoebe's friendship?

The book starts off with introducing them as children in the 1960s, when they really didn't understand how segregation impacted them as children in New Orleans. Phoebe experienced segregation when her Black babysitter wasn't able to go on a carousel ride with her, and when they went to the movies and her babysitter would have to sit upstairs and Phoebe would sit downstairs.

Keith also didn't understand why he was treated so badly. When he was in fifth grade, whenever the subject of history would come up, he would stop paying attention and draw — he was an artist at heart — because he was angry that he didn't see any relationship between the history they were learning in school and the experiences he was having in his neighborhood. A park near where he lived had two baseball fields and a football field that was off-limits for him and other Black young men on the weekends. He was also puzzled why some shopkeepers wouldn't wait on him in their stores. As much as he loved his school, it didn't really explain to him why there were those unfair rules that troubled him.

I thought it was interesting that they were living through this without understanding of the historical significance of what they were experiencing. I thought that that might actually get all of us to think, "Well, when did we first understand that people were treated differently because of the color of their skin? And do we still think that's going on?" We would be seeing it through their eyes, and their confusion as children probably parallels our confusion as children when we first realize that people are not treated the same depending on their ethnicity, their skin color — for all sorts of different reasons. I took that approach to try to personalize the whole thing for everybody.

What has it been like for them to learn more about their ancestors?

Neither one of them knew about it when they were children and it wasn't spoken about in their families. Phoebe didn't learn about it until she was in her 40s and she got a telephone call from someone who had bought the judge's house and wanted to redecorate it and he said, "I gather you're a great-great-granddaughter of Judge John Howard Ferguson," and she said, "What?" So that's how she learned about it. She knew about the case from school of course. She assumes that her mother didn't know about the connection, and that her father may have known it, although it wasn't mentioned in his obituary. She thinks the family just didn't talk about it.

Together cover

The cover of the second edition of Amy Nathan's book "Together: An Inspiring Response to the 'Separate-but-Equal' Supreme Court Decision that Divided America."

Keith didn't know until he was in fifth grade and his teacher said they were going to read about the Plessy v. Ferguson case. His teacher said, "You know, your last name is Plessy. This guy in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, his name is Plessy. Maybe you're related." So she brought in a telephone book and they looked through it and there were very few people named Plessy. That was his first inkling. But nobody knew anything more until Keith Weldon Medley did a lot of research on the Plessy case for a book he wrote called "We As Freemen." He had reached out to anyone named Plessy and had found a lot of genealogical information, so he's the one who contacted Keith.

How did Keith and Phoebe meet?

After Keith Weldon Medley's book was published in 2003, he invited Phoebe to come to one of his book signings in New Orleans, and he arranged for Keith to be there too. He came up to her and said, "Hi, my name is Keith Plessy," and she began apologizing for slavery and for the case and for oppression and segregation and everything, and he said, "No, no, no, no. It's no longer Plessy 'versus' Ferguson. Now it's Plessy 'and' Ferguson." So that was their introduction to each other.

What does their foundation do?

They wanted to help people really learn about the case. Working on the book, when I would mention the case to people, some had heard of it but they didn't really know what it was about. Many people actually thought that Plessy was the bad guy. They had run into that, too, and they thought it was important that people really understand what the case was all about and the negative impact that that separate-but-equal decision still has on life today in New Orleans and around the country. So that was their first goal, to teach people about the case and then to show examples of Black resistance to the kind of injustice that the case led to, so they began installing historical markers around New Orleans about different examples of people standing up for equal rights.

Keith particularly feels really strongly that he wants to tell the whole story, and so when they found that there was a way that they could try to get the New Orleans district attorney's office to take a look at the Plessy case and to apply for a pardon — the district attorney had just set up a new civil rights division to look at some wrongful convictions — they thought, "Well, this is the ultimate wrongful conviction."

--Editing by Marygrace Anderson.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

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