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Louisiana board votes to pardon Homer Plessy, namesake of Supreme Court's 1896 "separate but equal" ruling

Descendants of Plessy v. Ferguson team up
Descendants of Plessy v. Ferguson create unlikely friendship 07:03

A Louisiana board on Friday voted to pardon Homer Plessy, the namesake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 "separate but equal" ruling affirming state segregation laws. The state Board of Pardon's unanimous decision to clear the Creole man's record of a conviction for refusing to leave a whites-only train car in New Orleans now goes to Governor John Bel Edwards, who has final say over the pardon.

Plessy was arrested in 1892 after boarding the train car as part of a civil rights' group's efforts to challenge a state law that mandated segregated seating.

The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that state racial segregation laws didn't violate the Constitution as long as the facilities for the races were of equal quality.

Plessy pleaded guilty to violating the Separate Car Act a year later and was fined $25. He died in 1925 with the conviction still on his record.

Descendants of Plessy and John Howard Ferguson, the judge who oversaw his case in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, became friends decades later and formed a nonprofit that advocates for civil rights education. Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson told CBS News earlier this year they hope to create change by telling the truth about history and helping people understand the meaning of legacy.

"I think it's our responsibility, that's how we look at it," Ferguson said. "We want people to understand what legacy is, and not to wait until the end of your life to understand legacy, but to understand legacy at an early age."

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the principals in the Plessy v. Ferguson court case, pose for a photograph in front of a historical marker in New Orleans, on June 7, 2011.  Bill Haber / AP

"America had a chance to mend itself or begin at that time, but instead, after coming through a bloody Civil War and Reconstruction, which really worked, and a person like Homer Plessy had to go and ride a train and break a law in order to get their attention," Plessy told CBS News. "Instead, the highest court in the nation sanctions separate but equal."

Other recent efforts have acknowledged Plessy's role in history, including a 2018 vote by the New Orleans City Council to rename a section of the street where he tried to board the train in his honor.

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