Black man drinking at Colored water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo Credit: © Russell Lee via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

United States – Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality; a doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal.” The decision legitimated numerous state laws re-establishing racial segregation passed in the American South after the end of the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877).

The case stemmed from an 1892 incident in which an African American train passenger, Homer Plessy, refused to sit in a car for Black people. This refusal deliberately violated Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, which required “equal, but separate” train car accommodations for White and non-White passengers. Upon being charged for boarding a “Whites only” train car, Plessy’s lawyers defended him by arguing that the law was unconstitutional.

In its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the United States Supreme Court denied that segregated railroad cars for Black people were necessarily inferior. “We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy’s] argument,” Justice Henry Brown wrote, “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.”

He lost at trial, and his conviction was affirmed on his appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Plessy then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his case.