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Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson

On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled separate-but-equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads. For some fifty years, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the principle of racial segregation. Across the country, laws mandated separate accommodations on buses and trains, and in hotels, theaters, and schools.

The Court's majority opinion denied that legalized segregation connoted inferiority. However, in a dissenting opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that segregation in public facilities smacked of servitude and abridged the principle of equality under the law.

In a speech delivered in the Ohio House of Representatives in 1886 and later published as The Black Laws, legislator Benjamin W. Arnett described life in segregated Ohio:

I have traveled in this free country for twenty hours without anything to eat; not because I had no money to pay for it, but because I was colored. Other passengers of a lighter hue had breakfast, dinner and supper. In traveling we are thrown in "jim crow" cars, denied the privilege of buying a berth in the sleeping coach.

This foe of my race stands at the school house door and separates the children, by reason of 'color,' and denies to those who have a visible admixture of African blood in them the blessings of a graded school and equal privileges... We call upon all friends of 'Equal Rights' to assist in this struggle to secure the blessings of untrammeled liberty for ourselves and posterity.

B. W. Arnett, The Black Laws, March 10, 1886.
African American Perspectives, 1818-1907

By the 1930s, the practice of racial segregation was widespread and vigorously maintained. When devastating floods hit Arkansas in 1937, for example, white refugees and black refugees were cared for in separate relief facilities. A series of Farm Security Administration photographs documenting the flood demonstrates the pervasive nature of segregation.

After hearing arguments by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court overruled the Plessy decision on May 17, 1954. In Brown v. the Board of Education, a unanimous Court adopted Justice Harlan's position that segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

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