NO Students & Community Celebrate Civil Rights Icon Homer Plessy

NEW ORLEANS–One hundred and fifteen years ago, on June 7, 1892, an act of simple civil disobedience in New Orleans marked a crucial moment in U.S. history for race relations. It set off a legal battle over re-instated segregation and basic civil equality that reached the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson) and set a legal basis for “separate but equal” treatment of blacks for sixty years.

In 1892, over a decade since Federal troops were pulled out of Reconstruction, most former slave states had reinstated laws to make blacks second-class citizens. One form of Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws was the enactment of the Separate Car Act of 1890. Homer Plessy, a community education activist, agreed to ride on the then-segregated train system. When Plessy, one-eighth black, ascended onto a “white only” train on June 7 and remained in his seat, refusing to move to the “colored” car, it became a so-called criminal act.

At the corner of Press and Royal Street, on the east edge of today’s Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, police arrested Homer Plessy for illegally boarding the “white only” train car. The Organizing Citizens Committee, a group of well-educated Creoles and free men of color who had asked Plessy to participate, had made arrangements with the arresting officer to get him out of jail quickly after his arrest. Soon thereafter, the Citizens Committee worked on the court case, which they hoped would be strong enough to appeal the injustice and unconstitutional nature of segregation. Despite the explicit clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution–“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”–the 1896 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson became infamously hypocritical in justifying “separate but equal” state laws, which ignored the obvious practical inequity of segregation.

Crescent City Peace Alliance, directed by Reggie Lawson, organized the third annual Homer Plessy Celebration Day to commemorate the history of dissent to these unjust laws in New Orleans.

People gathered in the early afternoon at Plessy’s arrest site on the corner of Press and Royal Streets. A small plot of overgrown grass lay unused behind Lawson where, two years ago, a large wooden sign held out the promise of “Plessy Park: the New Orleans Civil Rights Memorial Park.” Since the group lost the $100-a-year lease on the land, its plans for the park designed by John Scott have been put on hold.

Moving from the railroad tracks to the auditorium of Frederick Douglass High School, an entire exhibit of six foot tall posters lined the entrance and stage, greeting a fifty person crowd of supporters and involved community members. Titles of the displays extended through African-American history of resistance in New Orleans and the United States, including: “Reconstruction 1865-1877,” “Organizing the Citizens Committee, 1890s,” “Brown v. Board of Education,” “Youth Activities in the 1960s.”

The blown-up text was written by students from different high schools involved with Students at the Center, a writing elective program guided by teachers Kalamu y Salaam and Jim Randels. The students work exploring New Orleans Civil Rights History, as a partner project of Plessy Park, culminated in a book titled “A Long Road.” In addition, the poster exhibit plans to be shown at various other high schools in New Orleans and at the Essence Festival this summer. Students at the Center collaborated with Xavier University students, supervised by Professor Ron Bechet, to design and print the posters.

Several students read from their work in “A Long Road,” which is largely composed of personal reflections on civil rights history. One particularly insightful and moving work, “Now I wasn’t Rosa Parks, but I was Esther Thompson,” was read by a recently graduated woman who described her relationship with her grandmother. At first, she scorned her grandmother for not being a part of the Civil Rights movement and being a servant for white people uptown. But after realizing that her grandmother worked hard to raise and push eight children to become educated and fulfill their dreams, the granddaughter instead called her “the backbone of the movement.”

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Published in: on June 19, 2007 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

“East of Tragedy”

I recently wrote an article about a New Orleans East couple that just appeared in this month’s New Orleans neighborhood publication The Trumpet (which is a product of the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, a post-K non-profit). Their story is compelling and their strength continuously refreshing. I saw my writing of their story as trying to put an oral story into words, therein capturing as much of the vernacular and dialogue as could advance the narrative and the feeling of how their lives have changed.

Hope you enjoy and please feel free to give me your feedback.

Published in: on May 29, 2007 at 5:03 pm  Leave a Comment