Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


Plessy v. Ferguson Mandate

During the era of Reconstruction, black Americans’ political rights were affirmed by three constitutional amendments and numerous laws passed by Congress. Racial discrimination was attacked on a particularly broad front by the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This legislation made it a crime for an individual to deny "the full and equal enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color."

In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 act, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress authority to prevent discrimination by private individuals. Victims of racial discrimination were told to seek relief not from the Federal Government, but from the States. Unfortunately, State governments were passing legislation that codified inequality between the races. Laws requiring the establishment of separate schools for children of each race were most common; however, segregation was soon extended to encompass most public and semipublic facilities.

Beginning with passage of an 1887 Florida law, states began to require that railroads furnish separate accommodations for each race. These measures were unpopular with the railway companies that bore the expense of adding Jim Crow cars. Segregation of the railroads was even more objectionable to black citizens, who saw it as a further step toward the total repudiation of three constitutional amendments. When such a bill was proposed before the Louisiana legislature in 1890, the articulate black community of New Orleans protested vigorously. Nonetheless, despite the presence of 16 black legislators in the state assembly, the law was passed. It required either separate passenger coaches or partitioned coaches to provide segregated accommodations for each race. Passengers were required to sit in the appropriate areas or face a $25 fine or a 20-day jail sentence. Black nurses attending white children were permitted to ride in white compartments, however.

In 1891, a group of concerned young black men of New Orleans formed the "Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law." They raised money and engaged Albion W. Tourgée, a prominent Radical Republican author and politician, as their lawyer. On May 15, 1892, the Louisiana State Supreme Court decided in favor of the Pullman Company’s claim that the law was unconstitutional as it applied to interstate travel. Encouraged, the committee decided to press a test case on intrastate travel. With the cooperation of the East Louisiana Railroad, on June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a mulatto (7/8 white), seated himself in a white compartment, was challenged by the conductor, and was arrested and charged with violating the state law. In the Criminal District Court for the Parish of Orleans, Tourgée argued that the law requiring "separate but equal accommodations" was unconstitutional. When Judge John H. Ferguson ruled against him, Plessy applied to the State Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition and certiorari. Although the court upheld the state law, it granted Plessy’s petition for a writ of error that would enable him to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

In 1896, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Henry Brown of Michigan delivered the majority opinion, which sustained the constitutionality of Louisiana’s Jim Crow law. In part, he said:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it....The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured except by an enforced commingling of the two races....If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.

In a powerful dissent, conservative Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan wrote:

I am of the opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that State, and hostile to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the blessings of freedom; to regulate civil rights common to all citizens, upon the basis of race; and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community, called the people of the United States, for whom and by whom, through representatives, our government is administered. Such a system is inconsistent with the guarantee given by the Constitution to each State of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by congressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

Indeed, it was through the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and congressional civil rights acts of the 1950s and 1960s that systematic segregation under state law was ended. In the wake of those Federal actions, many states amended or rewrote their state constitutions to conform with the spirit of the 14th amendment. But for Homer Plessy the remedies came too late. The document shown is the mandate (order) of the Supreme Court to the Louisiana Supreme Court to deny Plessy’s request to overturn the law and to order him to bear the cost of the suit. It is part of the Records of the Supreme Court, RG 267, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163, #15248.

Teaching Suggestions

Interpreting the Document

1. Students should review what their textbooks have to say about Plessy v. Ferguson. Supplement the text with information from the preceding article.

2. Review the definitions of the following words before reading the document:

• petitioner (n)—person making a written request or plea in which a specific court action is asked for• respondent (n)—a defendant• writ (n)—formal legal document ordering or prohibiting some action• relator (n)—person at whose prompting or complaint a case is begun• mandate (n)—an order from a higher court or official to a lower court• writ of prohibition (n)—an order forbidding something to be done• writ of certiorari (n)—an order from ahigher court to a lower court requesting the record of a case for review

Click the image to view a larger version

3. Words from the vocabulary list above have been scrambled. As the students unscramble each word, one letter will fall into a circled space. Students should take the letters in the circled spaces and unscramble the word they form to find the answer to the problem.

Click the image to see a printable, full-page version of this teaching activity

4. Present the document to students and ask them to read it and answer the following questions:

a. Who sent the mandate? Who received it?

b. Who were the two parties in the case?

c. In whose favor had the Louisiana Supreme Court decided in December 1892?

d. What did the U.S. Supreme Court decide about the Louisiana Supreme Court’s judgment? When?

e. Which party won the case? Which party had to pay the costs of the case?

Related Topics and Questions for Research and Reports

1. Instruct students to prepare a time line of significant legislation and events during Reconstruction from the end of the Civil War to the 1883 decision.

2. Justice Henry Brown, who wrote the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, warned that legislation would fail to end social prejudice. Ask students to research civil rights legislation adopted in the 1950s and 1960s

and develop a position paper in which they either affirm or dispute Justice Browns assertion.

3. Ask students to conduct independent research and make reports on the following topics.

a. The opinions and lives of Justice Brown and Justice Harlan offer an interesting study in contrasts. Provide a thumbnail biographical sketch about each man, then ask students to read the passages given in the note from the judges’ Plessy v. Ferguson opinions and to infer which justice wrote each opinion. Have students account for why their inferences were correct or incorrect. Ask students to read the entire decision, then to summarize the main points of Browns opinion and Harlan’s dissent.

b. Plessy v. Ferguson upheld segregation only in the use of railroad coaches. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions upheld segregation in other areas as well: Berea College v. Kentucky, 211 U.S. 45 (1908); Cumming v. County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899); Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927); McCabe v. Atchison, T. & S. F. Ry. Co., 235 U.S. 151 (1914); Missouri ex rel., Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1948); Sipuel v. University of Oklahoma, 332 U.S. 631 (1948); McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950); Henderson v. United States, 339 U.S. 816 (1950) ; Allston v. School Board of the City of Norfolk, 112 Fed. 2d 992 (1940); Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950). However, beginning with the 1914 McCabe case, the Supreme Court began to apply more rigid standards of equality under segregation. Ask students to investigate the circumstances that led to these cases, the arguments presented by each side, and the main points of the Supreme Court’s opinion and dissent, where applicable.

c. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. Ask students to investigate the circumstances that led to this landmark case, the arguments presented by each side in the case, and the main points brought out in Chief Justice Warrens opinion, the single opinion of a unanimous court.


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Chicago: "Plessy v. Ferguson Mandate," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 69–72. Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5YHVWY89P9KWIFY.

MLA: . "Plessy v. Ferguson Mandate." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 69–72. Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5YHVWY89P9KWIFY.

Harvard: , 'Plessy v. Ferguson Mandate' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.69–72. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5YHVWY89P9KWIFY.