Live

Watch CBSN Live

Descendants of Plessy v. Ferguson unite after Louisiana governor posthumously pardons Homer Plessy: "It's deeply moving"

Descendants of landmark segregation case unite
Descendants of landmark segregation case unit... 07:54

Inside the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1892, Homer Plessy was charged for sitting in the Whites-only section of a train car. Plessy pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a fine. He lived the rest of life as a convicted criminal.

His case became the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in where seven of eight justices ruled against him and established the precedent of separate but equal treatment for Black people in the United States. 

Nearly 130 years later, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards granted a posthumous pardon to Plessy on Wednesday near the spot where Plessy was arrested.  

"While this pardon has been a long time coming, we can all acknowledge this is a day that should have never had to happen," Edwards said at the signing ceremony. 

Dignitaries and descendants of both Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, the Louisiana judge who initially upheld the state's segregation law, advocated for the pardon. 

Keith Plessy, a cousin of Plessy's three generations removed, and Phoebe Ferguson, the great-great-granddaughter of Ferguson, gathered at the historic site in New Orleans. 

"It is this unjust criminal conviction that has brought us here today," Ferguson said. 

Kate Dillingham's great-great-grandfather, John Harlan, was a one-time Kentucky slaveholder who became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and in 1896 he was the lone vote against segregation and in support of Plessy. Dillingham also gathered at the site with the other descendants.

"A little emotional for me, I think," said Dillingham.

Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy have known each other for years.  

"When I first met Keith, you know, just the reality of Ferguson meeting Plessy. I got some apologizing to do here," Phoebe told CBS News' David Begnaud. 

They established The Plessy & Ferguson Foundation to educate and remind people about the impacts of the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision. 

This week's gathering was an emotional one. 

"It's deeply moving, very emotional for me and my family. I'm representing a large number of Harlan descendants," said Dillingham.  

In Justice Harlan's dissent, he wrote, "The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds." 

Those words have left a lasting impact. 

Keith Plessy called them "words of magic to the legal community. There is not a lawyer that you could talk to that's not familiar with those words."

"I feel like they're etched in stone, those words. You know, in my consciousness," said Dillingham. 

Dillingham, a cellist, took her great-great-grandfather's word and amplified them with her cello, playing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at this week's ceremony.  

"'Lift Every Voice and Sing' is the African American national anthem. It is. The song that kept people going," Ferguson said.  

Homer Plessy is now the first person in Louisiana to be pardoned posthumously. The presiding judge of the Orleans Parish criminal court told Begnaud that she plans to dedicate her courtroom's Section A to Homer Plessy and call it the Homer Plessy Courtroom. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.