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Plessy Revisited. Teaching Plessy. How do you teach the case? Plessy v. Brown (1896, 1954). John Marshall Harlan. Earl Warren. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Justice Harlan's Dissent. Brown v . Board of Education (1954) Chief Justice Warren .

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Plessy Revisited

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Teaching Plessy

  • How do you teach the case?

  • Plessy v. Brown (1896, 1954)

John Marshall Harlan

Earl Warren

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Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)Justice Harlan's Dissent

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)Chief Justice Warren

Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. . . . "

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. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana."

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. . . . Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. . . . "

To separate them [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. . . .

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

From Sole Dissent to Unanimous Majority

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Instructions for Drawing Plessy

Read the following brief description of the Plessy case, and draw a one-panel political cartoon that takes a position for or against the decision. Let’s suppose that you write for a paper in Washington, DC (a southern city with many northern transplants).

Historical Description:Louisiana passed a law in 1890 segregating railroad cars by race, making it so that blacks rode in one car and whites in another. In 1892, Homer Plessy, a very light-skinned African American (1/8th black in the terminology of the day), challenged the law by riding in a white RR car. He was arrested, and the Supreme Court ultimately used his case to decide on the constitutionality of racial segregation. In the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court ruled that separate facilities were constitutional as long as they were equal. This became known as the “separate, but equal” doctrine, validating segregation.

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The “Real” Homer Plessy?

“Homer Plessy”Project Legal (1987)

“Homer Plessy”Frenchcreoles.comActually an illustration of a Philadelphia man from a London paper (1856)

“Homer Plessy” African American Registry (on-line, 2005)

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Rethinking Plessy

  • Who was Homer Plessy?

  • Who was John Howard Ferguson?

  • “Mulatto” or “Biracial”

  • Frederick Hoffman, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896)

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No. of Cases

Degree of Color

Weight of Brain (grams)





3/4 white



Half white



1/4 white



1/8 white



1/16 white



Pure negroes


Hoffman’s Argument and “Evidence” (1)

“Weight of the Brain of White and Colored Soldiers”

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Hoffman’s Argument and “Evidence” (2)

“The children of colored women and white men, of whatever shade of color, are morally and physically the inferiors of the pure black,” Hoffman wrote. He cited a Civil War surgeon, who wrote, “Although I have known some muscular and healthy mulattoes, I am convinced that as a general rule, any considerable admixture of white blood deteriorates the physique and impairs the powers of endurance, and almost always introduces a scrofulous taint.”

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Multiracialism and the US Census

US Census (2000)Multiracial Americans: 4.6-6.8 million (1.6-2.4% of US pop.)

Assignment: I’d like for each table to come of with a list of pros and cons for allowing Americans to describe themselves with multiple racial categories.

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Segregation & Multiracial Rankings (2000)

Most Segregated Cities in America (white/black):1) Gary, IN2) Detroit, MI3) Waukesha, WI4) New York, NY5) Chicago, IL

Most Multiracial States in America1) New York2) California3) Texas4) Florida5) Georgia

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Brook Thomas, Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (NY: Bedford Books, 1997)

“Census 2000 Race Contours,” University of Southern California, (viewed 6/15/05)

“Census Scope,” Social Science Data Analysis Network, (viewed 6/15/05)

“Minority Links,” US Census Bureau, (viewed 6/15/05)

Supreme Court Historical Society, “Landmark Cases,” McGraw-Hill, (viewed 6/15/05)