Cotton Press Street
Last week, I checked out some of the Martin Luther King Day parade with the intention to make it the center of an adventure. It will be, but the more I learned about what inspired him and the other civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ‘60s, the more I realized how a moment that took place in New Orleans, a little more than a half-century earlier, created a series of events that would lead us directly to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream.
One of my favorite walks in New Orleans is through the Bywater. I usually go up Burgundy, past the World War I Memorial Arch, surrounded by large, beautiful homes with ornate balconies and lanterns. Sometimes I’ll go up Dauphine, instead, walking past Bud Rips and Suis Generis, as well as shotgun homes in every color combination imaginable (as well as many I’m not sure how anyone could have imagined).
I’ll bop over to Markey’s Bar for a beer and then travel up Royal Street to Press Street and the railroad tracks freight trains use to deliver everything from cars to coffee around the country. I see the dividing line between the Bywater and its neighbor, the Marigny. I see the performing and visual arts high school, NOCCA, along with its red brick restaurant, Press Street Station (delicious food), in which the school’s culinary students hone their talents. And I see a long stretch of green space, often used as a rehearsal space for Mardi Gras groups, and (glory glory!) apparently the future home of the next Hubig’s Pie factory.
But, sometimes, if we close our eyes and imagine, we see a lot more.
I see back to the early-1720s, when a businessman, Pierre Dreux, builds the first plantation in the lower part of New Orleans, called La Brasserie. It produces rum, beer, vegetables, citrus, grain, sugarcane, and cotton, but subdividing it is more profitable, which is exactly what happens near the turn of the 19th century. This land is passed through the hands of residents as famous as Governor Don Bernardo de Galvez, and as infamous as Delphine LaLaurie.
I see one of those subdividing streets – called Cotton Press Street – lead to the river where the Levee Steam Cotton Press (the street’s namesake) is built in 1832. With the capacity to produce 200,000 bales of cotton per year, it’s the largest of its kind in the world — so large that a railroad is needed to transport in materials, as well as to transport out the final product.
I see the fires in the latter half of the 1800s destroy the cotton press, and I see its train tracks transition to passenger use. The street the tracks run along is shortened to Press Street.
In 1892, I see a shoemaker purchase a train ticket to Covington in the train station that now houses NOCCA’s restaurant. I see him board the train, take his seat in the first-class car, and I see the conductor approach him.
“Are you colored?” the conductor asks.
“Yes, I am 1/8th black” the shoemaker responds.
“You need to go to the car set aside for colored people.”
When the shoemaker refuses, an undercover detective steps forward and asks him to go to the other coach. When he declines again, the detective says, “You will either need to go to the other coach, or go to jail.”
“I will sooner go to jail than leave this coach,” the shoemaker says.
Homer Plessy is taken to jail and is sent before the criminal court under $500 bonds.
An Arc Bending Toward Injustice
During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the 13th and 14th Amendments secured new rights for black Americans across the South. Homer Plessy was born in 1862 to two free-persons of color, French-speaking, whose families fled the Haitian revolution in the early 1800s.
As a young adult in addition to his job as a shoemaker on South Rampart Street, Plessy is also leader in the city-wide fight for education reform. During his upbringing, blacks could marry whomever they chose, sit in any streetcar seat they wanted, and, briefly, attend integrated schools.
Beginning in 1877, however, when President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the withdrawal of federal troops, effectively ending Reconstruction, southern states began rewriting their Constitutions and testing the length to which they could go in rolling back the civil rights of African American citizens.
In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, requiring separate accommodation for blacks and whites on railways. A group of prominent black, creole and white New Orleanians formed the Comite des Citoyens (Committee of Citzens) to repeal the law or fight its effect. Their strategy was new: they would intentionally create test cases to challenge the constitutionality of the law in court.
Earlier in 1892, the Comite had one of its members, Daniel Desdunes, attempt something like Plessy would, but on a train going to Montgomery, Alabama. Desdunes was arrested, but before the Comite’s lawyers could challenge the constitutionality of his arrest, a separate case determined the Separate Car Act held no legitimacy when crossing state lines.
On June 7 of the same year, it was Homer Adolph Plessy’s turn, but he would ride on a train staying within Louisiana.
It was amazing to learn the intentionality of everything the Comite did. Plessy was chosen because his complexion was so white, he would be able to purchase a train ticket in a whites-only car without hassle. They notified the East Louisiana Railroad – who was against the racist law for the not-so-noble reason that it required them to use an extra train car – of the plan so they would know to send a conductor to Plessy and ask his race. The Comite also hired a private detective to be present on the train to make the arrest, ensuring it was in violation of the Separate Car Act and not some other misdemeanor they weren’t attempting to challenge.
The date of the trip was scheduled to coincide with the National Republican Convention in Minneapolis to pressure the party to focus on civil liberties in the South. The train station was chosen because – alongside the Press Street Wharf – this was one of the most prominent transportation hubs in the city, increasing the chances a disruption like this would garner attention.
As one commentator later put it, Plessy’s role was much easier. His “role consisted of four tasks: get the ticket, get on the train, get arrested and get booked.”
Everything went exactly as the Comite had hoped. Almost.
Plessy Meets Ferguson
When Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson – both descendants of the principles in the famous court case – first met, Phoebe’s first instinct was to apologize.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Keith told her. “You weren’t alive then, and neither was I.”
That’s a reasonable point. And I think another one is that Ferguson is a far cry from the racist many assume him to be. He was actually an abolitionist and school-teacher from Massachusetts who eventually studied law in Boston. His family was “all but wiped out” before and during the Civil War. When he completed law school, he moved to New Orleans in 1865. He met and married his wife, Virginia Butler Earhart, whose father was “a staunch and outspoken abolitionist from Pennsylvania.”
In the Desdunes case, I mentioned, above, Ferguson – in one of his earliest cases – was the presiding judge and found Desdunes not guilty.
On October 28, four-and-a-half months after Plessy was arrested, Plessy’s local lawyer argued the Separate Car Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which stated that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.”
On November 18, however, Judge Ferguson rejected that argument. He said the following:
There is no pretense that he [Plessy] was not provided with equal accommodations with the white passengers. He was simply deprived of the liberty of doing as he pleased, and of violating a penal statue with impunity.
As many would argue after, two things separated are rarely equal.
Invoking the North…as it suits you
Immediately upon losing the case, Plessy and his counsel moved for an appeal with the Supreme Court of Louisiana which, during this time, heard cases and made decisions from The Cabildo in Jackson Square.
They cited precedents from pre-Civil War decisions made in northern states. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled that segregated schools were constitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court case cited cut against the heart of what Plessy’s team was arguing. Plessy’s lawyers said that an enforced separateness instigated stereotypes and a sense of superiority among whites.
The Pennslvania Supreme Court decision stated, “To assert separateness is not to declare inferiority … It is simply to say that following the order of Divine Providence, human authority out not to compel these widely separated races to intermix.”
The Supreme Law of the Land
In 1896, the Comite des Citoyens received its wish: an appeal of Plessy’s case to the United States Supreme Court. Unfortunately, in the time between 1892 and 1896, the Court had become less sympathetic toward the protection of civil rights for black Americans.
Oral arguments took place on April 13. Plessy’s attorney, Albion Winegar Tourgee, argued that segration’s primary effect “is to perpetuate the stigma of color – to make the curse immortal incurable, inevitable.” In other words, to keep whites separate from blacks is to reinforce the idea among whites that there is good reason to keep them separate. That, somehow, to integrate would result in some lessening of white Americans. This, Tourgee argued, obstructed the Fourteenth Amendment, meant to guarantee the same rights to all citizens of this country.
The Justices ruled against Plessy 7 – 1. Of those seven votes to uphold the decision, six were actually from Justices from states that sided with the Union during the Civil War. Geez Louise! These are supposed to be the progressive guys!
Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Brown of Massachusetts stated the following:
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 lone judge in the minority was Justice John Harlan, who became known as the “Great Dissenter.” Let’s see what he said:
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.
Yikes! This is our guy? It gets better…
But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.
It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race. In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.
He wasn’t wrong.
Star Wars: Episode 5
At this point, things are looking pretty bleak. If this was a Star Wars movie, it would definitely be Episode 5. The Empire struck back and was firmly in control. For the next half-decade, state legislatures in the South disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites by way of rejecting them for voter registration and voting. Poll taxes, white primaries and grandfather clauses all served to “keep the white race supreme” and reverse political gains made by African-American leaders, as well as civil rights gains made by heir constituencies.
Plessy faded back into relative anonymity. He fathered children, continued to participate in the religious and social life of his community, and sold and collected insurance premiums until he died at the age of 62. His obituary unceremoniously read, “Homer Plessy – on Sunday, March 1, 1925, at 5:10 a.m. beloved husband of Louise Bordenave.” He was buried in a family tomb at St. Louis Cemetry #1.
Until his death, Ferguson lived in the cottage he had built back in 1870, which still stands at 1500 Henry Clay Avenue. He died at the age of 77, in 1915 and the home remained in the family for another five years. He’s buried with his wife and other Earhart family members in Lafayette Cemetery #1.
In 2009, descendants of the principles in Plessy v. Ferguson replaced the “v” with an “&” and created the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation of New Orleans, to honor the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. They are responsible for several historical markers erected around the city, including, on February 12, 2009 – more than 115 years after – a plaque to commemorate the moment Homer Plessy was arrested on a train at the corner of Royal and Press streets, as well as the enormous wave that moment set in motion.
Two evenings ago, I stood there, reading the plaque, as a freight train approached, blasting its horn. I saw a NOCCA student on the steps leading up to the restaurant, diddling on her saxophone while she waited for her ride. Another student rested her back against a red brick wall, homework splayed on the cement in front of her.
As the train passed, sealing off the Bywater from the Marigny for at least the next 10 minutes, cars queued up along Chartres and Royal, drivers putting their vehicles in park and checking their phones. Pedestrians and cyclists stood in a blob near the tracks, waiting to pass into the Bywater, chatting, and flinching each time the conductor sounded the horn.
The train slowed to a crawl and, on the other side, I could see legs and bike tires, eager to cross into the Marigny and beyond. The lights of the train, NOCCA, and the setting sun cast long shadows uptown on everything in the vicinity, including the historical marker I was reading.
A man his 30s, cigarette in one hand and a beer can in the other, wearing a plain, white t-shirt as the temperature dropped, stopped at the backside of the marker and mumbled what he read.
He stepped to the side of the sign so we could see one another, and he was shaking his head in apparent disbelief. “Shit’s wild man,” he said with a thick N’awlins accent.
“What is?” I laughed. “That all this crap happened here in our town.” I agreed. “I just read a sign that said Marie Laveau’s mama lived two blocks ova’ there!” he cracked up, pointing toward Elysian Fields. “Wild shit.”
“Yeah, I hear you,” I said in the opposite of a N’awlins accent. Excited to be bonding over history, I told him I learned the world’s most efficient cotton press used to be right over there.
“No way,” he said taking a drag off his cigarette.
“Yeah, and I have this blog where I’m trying to do stuff like this every day,” I said as he was getting ready to continue his walk. “I can send you the link if you want!”
“Nah man, I probably won’t read it,” he said, not even trying to lie. “But it sounds cool.” (Okay, he probably lied there.)
Ten years after the Plessy-v-Ferguson ruling, a group inspired by the case convened. Delegates from 14 states formed the Niagara Movement. That movement, in turn, led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP), which Rosa Parks joined in 1943. Leading a team of NAACP lawyers in 1954, Thurgood Marshall (who eventually became the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) combined five cases and successfully used Plessy’s 14th Amendment arguments before the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education, which effectively overruled the separate-but-equal doctrine.
On December 1, 1955, “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, accelerating the fight for civil rights and the star of movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
But none of that would have happened as it did if, 59 years earlier, a proud New Orleans shoemaker hadn’t bought a train ticket to Covington in a station, right there, where a cotton press used to be.
“Shit’s wild man.”