New Orleans is a funny city. Visiting here, if you didn’t know better, you would be tempted to think that the significant events in the long history of the struggle for black equality happened elsewhere; maybe in Selma and Montgomery, maybe Harlem, maybe in Memphis, but certainly not sleepy old New Orleans. After all, where is the physical evidence?
I can recall when I moved here noting the large number of Confederate memorials. Which is also funny for a city that fell early and relatively uneventfully in the Civil War (or the “War Between The States” as I have heard it called in Mississippi). There is the statue of Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard at Esplanade and City Park Avenue, the Jefferson Davis statue on Jeff Davis Parkway (all life sized), the stone memorial outside the house on 1st and Camp Streets where Jefferson Davis died, and of course the statue of General Robert E. Lee that dominates Lee Circle in the Central Business District. We won’t even talk about the White League memorial at the foot of Canal Street which fondly commemorates the brutal end to Reconstruction.
So why, then, do our memorials not remember other events great historical significance?
Two days ago, on February 12, 2009, was a very important beginning to correcting this city’s selective historical memory. The descendants of Homer Plessy and John Howard Ferguson unveiled a plaque at the corner of Royal and Press Streets in the 9th Ward.
If you have been on the corner of Royal and Press streets, it may be surprising to hear that any event of national significance ever happened there. It is a sleepy thoroughfare where the Bywater meets the Marigny, with unused warehouses on one side and modest homes on the other. When I lived in the Bywater I knew these tracks as a place where you go from home to work and back again, and where you are frequently stopped with your neighbors for an indeterminate period of time by freight trains, which still have the right of way. For years I associated the location with the Morning 40 Federation’s song “Walking through the 9th Ward”, about being too drunk and broke to be scared while walking home through a dangerous neighborhood, not any Civil Rights history.
But it was at this seemingly inauspicious corridor that Homer Plessy, a man of 1/8 African-American descent, boarded a whites-only train car in 1892 as a legal challenge to a law mandating separate facilities for blacks and whites. This law was similar to those on the books in many Southern states, which had not been nationally recognized. Many of my readers are familiar with the end to the case Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court decision that upheld the “Jim Crow” system of legal segregation until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
As tragic as that ending was, the significance of Homer Plessy’s act can also be viewed as a testament to the long struggle for equality, and a triumph of human decency. Homer was a member of a citizen’s committee that fought for racial equality, with a willingness to use civil disobedience a full sixty years before such tactics were made famous in America by individuals such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
This is not a story that ends in 1892, or 1954. There was also a struggle to put this plaque in place that lasted several years. Rumor has it that the first plaque commemorating Homer Plessy’s act mysteriously disappeared after Katrina. Since the storm I have seen Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance and Jim Randels of Students at the Center (SAC) tirelessly struggle through bureaucracies and a moving map of land titles to get recognition for this location. Randels and his partner Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC also deserve credit for involving their students with this work. Most notably, SAC students published a civil rights anthology of student writings, The Long Ride, which deals with three centuries of the history of struggle by African Americans for equality.
In giving these credits, I am sure that I am leaving out significant players, and I apologize in advance for this.
February 12, 2009 was an important day for our city. Maybe now we will begin to remember with eyes that are more clear, and to finally give some respect to those who, like Homer Plessy, have been willing to act, and to make personal sacrifices, to do what is right. It’s about time.