St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans
Famous Parishioner: Homer Plessy
Homer Adolph Plessy : Civil Rights Activist
(1863 – 1925)

“And the said Homer Adolph Plessy in his own proper person cometh into Court here, and having heard the said information read, says: That this Honorable Court ought not to entertain further cognizance of this cause, because protesting that he is not guilty as in the said information above specified…”

Defendant’s Plea – Exhibit D

State Of Louisiana vs. Homer Adolph Plessy

Parish Of Orleans - October 1892

Homer Plessy is widely known as the plaintiff in the 1896 United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. That was the case that sanctioned so-called separate-but-equal laws passed by Southern States following the Civil War. Far less known is the story of Homer Plessy, his background in old New Orleans, and his act of civil disobedience that brought this Treme resident’s case to the highest Court in America. A shoemaker and an education reform activist, he was married by St. Augustine Church pastor, Father Joseph Subileau, in the 1880’s.

Homer Plessy was born Homère Patris Plessy on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1863 less than three months after the Emancipation Proclamation. His middle name later appears as “Adolph” or “Adolphe” after his father. His birth certificate lists his father as Adolphe Plessy, a colored carpenter, and Rosa Debergue, a seamstress. Both were classified as free people of color. Adolphe Plessy died when Homer was seven years old. In 1871, his mother Rosa married Victor M. Dupart who worked as a clerk at the post office. Like many members of the Dupart family, Homer Plessy pursued the craft of shoemaking. During the 1880’s, he worked at Patricio Brito’s shoe making business on Dumaine Street near North Rampart. In 1887, in his early twenties, Plessy became vice-president of an activist group called the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social Club – a group dedicated to reforming public education in New Orleans. In July of 1888, Father Joseph Subileau of St. Augustine Church married twenty-five-year old Homer Plessy and nineteen-year old Louise Bordenave, the daughter of Oscar Bordenave and Madonna Labranche. Plessy’s employer Patricio Brito served as witness. In 1889, Homer and Louise moved to Faubourg Tremé at 1108 North Claiborne Avenue. He registered to vote in the Sixth Ward’s Third Precinct.

It was the Louisiana legislature’s passage of the Separate Car Act of 1890 that became the impetus for Homer Plessy’s train ride into history. That law forced railroad companies to segregate passengers by race and mandated the jailing of anyone riding in a section not allocated to their race. The Separate Car Act angered many Louisianans who had been free to ride anywhere on railroad trains since 1867. To challenge the law, a group of men organized the ‘Citizens Committee for Annulment of Act No. 111 Commonly Known as the Separate Car Law’ ( Comite des Citoyens). This group consisted of Republican activists, writers, lawyers, businessmen, former Union soldiers, and educators. Their goal was to employ civil disobedience and the judicial system to eliminate segregation laws in Louisiana and throughout the South. During 1891 and 1892, the Citizens Committee raised funds, secured legal representation, and recruited volunteers for civil disobedience test cases including Homer Plessy.

It was June 7, 1892 when Homer Adolph Plessy was arrested for violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act. That day, Homer Plessy arrived at the Press Street Railroad yards near the Mississippi River. He boarded the White Only car of the East Louisiana Railroad’s Number 8 train that was bound for Covington, La. The conductor stopped the train and summoned a detective who forcibly dragged Homer from the train. Plessy’s arrest took place at the corner of Royal and Press Streets. He was released on a surety bond that evening and members of the Citizens Committee met him at the police station. That November, Judge John Ferguson ruled against him as did the Louisiana State Supreme Court. In 1893, the Citizens Committee appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

It was 1896 when the United States Supreme Court ruled against Plessy and the Citizens’ Committee by a margin of 7 to 1. Though the majority of the Justices dismissed their Fourteenth Amendment claims, their arguments engendered the “Great Dissent” by Justice John Marshall Harlan which became a beacon for Civil Rights advocates in the twentieth century. In his dissent, Justice Harlan wrote:

The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law…The thin disguise of 'equal' accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

In their final statement, the Citizens Committee proudly declared:

We, as freemen, still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred… In defending the cause of liberty, we met with defeat but not with ignominy.”

Their philosophy and tactics portended successful Civil Rights strategies during the twentieth century.

Homer Plessy died in 1925. His obituary was simple: "Plessy - on Sunday, March 1, 1925, at 5:10 a.m. beloved husband of Louise Bordenave." He was buried in the Debergue-Blanco family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1.

Members of the Citizens Committee (1891–1896)

“We, therefore appeal to the citizens of New Orleans, of Louisiana, and of the whole Union to give us their moral sanction and financial aid in our endeavors to have that oppressive law annulled by the courts.

We call for such a demonstration as will plainly show the temper of the people against that infamous contrivance which has been appropriately characterized as the ‘Jim Crow Car’.”

An Appeal

Statement of the Citizens’ Committee

New Orleans, La.

September 5, 1891

* Arthur Esteves, President
* C. C. Antoine, Vice-President
* Firmin Christophe, Secretary
* G. G. Johnson, Assistant Secretary
* Paul Bonseigneur, Treasurer
* Laurent Auguste Rudolph B. Baquie Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes
* A. J. Giuranovich Alcee Labat E. A. Williams
* Pierre Chevalier Louis Andre Martinet Numa E. Mansion
* L. J. Joubert A. B. Kennedy Myrthil. J. Piron
* Eugene Luscy Julius Hall Frank Hall
* Noel Bachus George Geddes A. E. P. Albert

Copyright © 2005 Keith Weldon Medley

Procession to Cemetery for Plessy Commemoration

Copyright © 2005 Keith Weldon Medley

Plessy Commemoration - At the Graveside

Copyright © 2005 Keith Weldon Medley

1996: Pastor of St. Augustine's, Father Jerome LeDoux, leads a service commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Plessy V. Ferguson decison to the gravesite of Homer Plessy
in St. Louis Cemetery # 1.

Plessy Family at St. Augustine Church
Copyright © 2005 Keith Weldon Medley 
Homer Plessy's descendants attend St. Augustine's 1996 Mass and commemoration
of the 100th Anniversary of the Plessy V. Ferguson verdict. 

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