Don't Know Much

Whatever Became of 56 Signers (5th in a series)

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Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

(This is the fifth in a series. The first post is linked here.)

Slave trader turned early abolitionist. Flag designer. “First President.” And the Author.

-Stephen Hopkins (Rhode Island) Second oldest delegate after Franklin, Hopkins was 69 years old at the signing. A merchant, he had been Rhode Island’s colonial governor but was an outspoken advocate of independence. A partner of the wealthy Brown brothers who were involved in the slave trade –Newport was a key northern slavery port– he enslaved several people. But in 1774, he secured passage of law prohibiting the slave trade in Rhode Island, one of the first anti-slavery laws in the colonies and he began freeing some but not all of the people he enslaved. In ill health, he retired from politics and public life and  died in 1785 at age 78. YES, but he had begun began freeing some of them by 1776.

-Francis Hopkinson (New Jersey) Like Franklin and Jefferson, Hopkinson was a man of many talents, a 38 year old attorney and musician at the time of the signing, he was the son of the founder –with Franklin– of the University of Pennsylvania and was among the school’s first graduates. Though long overlooked, he has more recently gotten his due as the designer of the “Stars and Stripes.” The claim is based on Hopkinson submitting a bill for his work on the flag and requesting “a quarter cask of the public wine” in payment. He was already on the Congressional payroll so was refused. While his home was ransacked during the war, he emerged relatively unscathed and later became a Federal judge before his death in 1791 at 53. YES

-Samuel Huntington (Connecticut) An apprenticed barrel-maker who became a successful attorney, he was a 45 year old politician at the time of the signing, having resigned his post as “King’s Attorney.” His true distinction is serving as “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” when the Articles of Confederation were adopted –making him the “First President,” sort of. Others have staked that claim as well. He served in a variety of national and state posts, including being the sitting governor of Connecticut at his death in 1796 at age 64. NO

Thomas Jefferson (Virginia) 33 year old planter, scientist, writer, lawyer. You know most of the rest. But Jefferson’s wartime service as Virginia’s governor is sometimes overlooked. In 1781,he was governor when the British attacked the state, including forces led by Benedict Arnold. Jefferson fled and was later investigated by the state legislature but no charges were filed. Some of his slaves were taken by the British and were being held in Yorktown during the siege in September-October 1781 and were later returned to Jefferson by George Washington. He died, like John Adams, on the 50th anniversary of the adoption–July 4, 1826. See the Monticello site for more information. YES

Francis Lightfoot Lee  (Virginia) A member of the state’s prominent planter family, he was 41 years old at the signing, the quiet brother of Richard Henry Lee, who offered the first resolution calling for independence in June 1776. After the war, he was a prominent advocate of the new Constitution, unlike his more visible older brother. He left the national scene and died at age 62 in 1797. YES

 

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Whatever Became of 56 Signers? (4th in a series)

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Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.

Part 4 in a series that begins here.

Father and grandfather of presidents. A simple farmer.  A workaholic.  The next five signers, in alphabetical order: (Yes following the entry means slaveholder; No means not a slaveholder.)

-Benjamin Harrison (Virginia) A member of the Virginia aristocracy, he was a well-to-do planter, around 50 at the the signing. Although his famed Berkeley Plantation on the James River was supposedly destroyed during the Revolution, it clearly survived. So did Harrison, who went on to serve three terms as governor of Virginia before his death in 1791 at age 65. Besides his role in the July  2 and 4 votes in Philadelphia, he is mostly distinctive as the father of 9th president William Henry Harrison and grandfather of namesake Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president. YES

-John Hart (New Jersey) Described as a well-meaning “Jersey” farmer with little education, Hart was a 65 year old planter at the time of the signing, and devoted to the patriot cause. Although supposedly hounded by the British during the war, he was later able to entertain General Washington and allow 12,000 troops to camp in his fields in 1778. He died of kidney stones in 1779, aged 68. YES

Joseph Hewes (North Carolina) Born in New Jersey, he moved to North Carolina and was a 46 year old Quaker merchant at the signing. At first a reluctant patriot, he broke with the Quakers over the possibility  of a violent rebellion and was considered a key influence in Congress by John Adams. His shipping experience was significant enough for him to be described as the first “secretary of the Navy,” responsible for getting his friend John Paul Jones a commission. Working relentlessly for the Congress, Hewes fell sick and died in 1779 at age 49 and was deeply mourned by his Congressional colleagues. YES

-Thomas Heyward, Jr. (South Carolina) Son of a wealthy planter, he was a 30 year old lawyer at the signing. Heyward counts as one of the few signers actually captured by the British, who then took his enslaved people, apparently shipping them to bondage in the West Indies. Initially paroled (released under an agreement), he was later taken aboard a prison ship and then held in St. Augustine, Florida under a form of house arrest until released in a prisoner exchange. While a hostage, he is credited with writing verses to a song called “God Save the Thirteen States.” He dabbled in politics after the war, but focused on rebuilding his family plantation where he died at 63 in 1809. YES

-William Hooper (North Carolina) Born in Boston, he was a 34 year old attorney who had moved South at the signing. He missed the key July vote but returned to sign the Declaration in August. Hooper was one of the signers who suffered losses during the war when the British invaders evacuating the Wilmington, North Carolina area and destroyed his home. He later pressed for ratification of the Constitution but lacked popularity in his adopted state and, suffering from a variety of illnesses, including malaria, died in 1790 at age 48. YES

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “Forgotten Founders”

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Whatever Became Of…56 Signers? (3d in series)

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Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

[Post revised  June 22,2017]

Part 3 in a series of posts about the fates of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  A printer, a politician with a notable name, a duelist, a Connecticut Yankee, and the most famous signature in U.S. history. 

A Yes after their names means they enslaved people; No means they did not.

-Benjamin Franklin  (Pennsylvania) America’s most famous man in 1776, Franklin was 70 years old at the time of the signing. Printer, publisher, writer, scientist, diplomat, philosopher –he was the embodiment of the Enlightenment ideal. A member of the draft committee that produced the Declaration, Franklin was a central figure in the independence vote and then helped the war effort by winning crucial French support for the America cause. But he lost no Fortune, reportedly tripling his wealth during the conflict. Franklin returned to the scene of the Declaration’s passage in 1787 to help draft the Constitution.. When he died at age 84 in 1790, his funeral was attended by a crowd equal to Philadelphia’s population at the time. Read more on Franklin at this National Park Service site. YES

Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts) A 32 year old merchant from Marblehead, Gerry (pronounced with a hard G like Gary) is much more famous for later dividing Massachusetts into oddly-shaped voting districts as the state’s governor. A cartoonist compared the districts to a salamander and the word “gerry-mandering” was born. Though he voted for independence, Gerry was not present to sign in August, signing later in the fall of 1776, He profited from the war and later joined the Massachusetts delegation to the Constitutional convention in 1787, although he refused to sign the Constitution. He became James Madison’s second vice president in 1813, but died in office in 1814 at age 70. NO

Button Gwinnett (Georgia) An English-born plantation owner and merchant, he was 41 at the time of the signing. And didn’t last much longer. A political argument with a Georgia general led to a duel in which Gwinnett was mortally wounded. He died in 1777 at age 42, the second of the signers to die. (John Morton of Pennsylvania was first.) YES

Lyman Hall ( Georgia) A Connecticut Yankee physician transplanted to Georgia plantation owner, Hall  was 52 years old at the signing. A vocal patriot when Georgia was far more hesitant about independence, he first came to Philadelphia as a nonvoting delegate. Hall’s plantation was destroyed during the war when the British made their punishing attacks on the South. He later served as Georgia’s governor, dying at age 66 in 1790. YES

John Hancock (Massachusetts) Born into a poor parson’s family in Lexington (National Parks Service site) , Hancock was sent to live with a wealthy uncle when his father died. He inherited his uncle’s shipping business and was one of America’s wealthiest men by the time he was thirty. A patriot leader in Boston, it was Hancock and Samuel Adams who the British sought to capture on that April 1775 night when the war began. President of the Continental Congress when independence was declared, he was 39 at the time of the signing. The outsized signature on the document cemented his fame in American lore. After the war, Hancock was governor of Massachusetts at the time of his death in 1793 at age 56. YES

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

 

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

 

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents

Whatever Became Of…56 Signers? (2d in a series)

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Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

Fair Copy of the Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Source New York Public Library)

…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.

Part 2 of a series that begins here. (A YES denotes slaveowner or trader; NO means the person did not enslave people.)

Here are the next five Signers of the Declaration, continuing in alphabetical order:

Samuel Chase (Maryland) A 35 year old attorney, Chase has the distinction of being among those signers who didn’t vote on July 4; he signed the later printed version in August. Accused of wartime profiteering but never tried or convicted, he later went broke from business speculating and settled into law practice. President George Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court, and Chase became the first justice to be impeached –although he was acquitted. He died in 1811 at age 70. YES Learn more about Impeachment history here.

-Abraham Clark (New Jersey) An attorney, 50 years old at the signing, Clark had two sons who were captured and imprisoned during the war; one on the notorious British prison ship Jersey and the other in a New York jail cell. Clark served in Congress on and off and opposed the Constitution’s ratification until the Bill of Rights was added. He died in 1794 at age 68. YES

George Clymer (Pennsylvania) A 37 year old merchant the time of the signing, Clymer was a well-heeled patriot leader who helped fund the American war effort. He was also elected to Congress after the July 2 independence vote, signing the Declaration on August 2. He belongs to an elite group who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution.  (The others were Roger Sherman of Conn,; George Read of Del.; and Franklin, Robert Morris and  James Wilson, all of PA.) He continued to prosper after the war and died in 1813 at age 74. NO

-William Ellery (Rhode Island) A modestly successful merchant turned attorney, aged 48 at the signing, Ellery replaced an earlier Rhode Island delegate who died of smallpox in Philadelphia. (Smallpox killed more Americans than the war did during the Revolution.) A dedicated member of Congress during the war years, Ellery saw his home burned by the British although it is thought unlikely they knew it was the home of a Signer. An abolitionist, he was rewarded after the war by President Washington with the lucrative post of collector for the port of Newport which he held for three decades. He died in 1829, aged 92, second in longevity among signers after Carroll.  (See previous post.NO

-William Floyd (New York) A 41 year old land speculator born on Long Island, New York, Floyd abstained from the July 2 independence vote with the rest of the New York delegation, but is thought to be the first New Yorker to sign the Declaration on August 2. Reports that his home on Fire Island was destroyed by the British were exaggerated, although it was used as a stable and barracks by the occupying Redcoats. (It is now part of a Fire Island National Park.)  Floyd served in the first Congress before moving to western New York where he owned massive land tracts and where he died at age 86 in 1821. YES

Read more about the Revolution, Declaration and “Forgotten Founders” in these books:

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “Forgotten Founders”

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

And In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

“Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor:” Whatever Became Of 56 Signers? (1 in a series)

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They pledged:

... our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.”

Then what happened?

The Grand Flag of the Union, first raised in 1775 and by George Washington in early 1776 in Boston. The Stars and Stripes did not become the "American flag" until June 14, 1777. (Author photo © Kenneth C. Davis)

The Grand Flag of the Union, the “first American flag,” originally raised in 1775 and later by George Washington in early 1776 in Boston. The Stars and Stripes did not become the “American flag” until June 14, 1777. (Author photo © Kenneth C. Davis)

This is an updated repost (June 2017) of a series about the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Included in this list is a simple guide to those Signers who enslaved people. A Yes means they enslaved people; a No means they did not.

…We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes , and our Sacred Honor.

Those strong words concluded the Declaration of Independence when it was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

There is little question that men who signed that document were putting their lives at risk. The identity and fates of a handful of those Signers is well-known. Two future presidents — Adams and Jefferson— and America’s most famous man, Benjamin Franklin, were on the Committee that drafted the document.

But the names and fortunes of many of the  other signers, including the most visible, John Hancock, are more obscure. In the days leading up to Independence Day, I will offer a thumbnail sketch of each of the Signers in alphabetical order. Some prospered and thrived; some did not: How many of those Signers actually paid with their Lives, Fortunes, and Sacred Honor?

John Adams (Massachusetts) Aged 40 when he signed, he went on to become the first vice president and second president of the United States. Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration in 1826 at age 90. (Jefferson died that same day) NO

Samuel Adams (Mass.) Older cousin to John, Samuel Adams was 53 at the signing. He went on to a career in state politics, initially refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights, and was governor of Massachusetts. He died in 1803 at 81. NO

Josiah Bartlett (New Hampshire) Inspiring the name of the fictional president of West Wing  fame on TV, Bartlett was a physician, aged 46 at the time of the signing. He helped ratify the Constitution in his home state, giving the document the necessary nine states to become the law of the land. Elected senator he chose to remain in New Hampshire as governor. Three of his sons and other descendants also became physicians. He died in 1795 at age 65. YES

Carter Braxton (Virginia) A 39-year-old plantation owner, Braxton was looking to invest in the slave trade before the Revolution. Initially reluctant about independence, he helped fund the rebellion and lost a considerable  fortune  during the war –not because he was a signer, but because of shipping losses during the war itself. He later served in the Virginia legislature and died in 1797 at age 61, far less wealthy than he had been, but also far from impoverished. YES

Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland) A plantation owner, 38 years old and one of America’s wealthiest men at the signing, Carroll was the only Roman Catholic signer and the last signer to die. With hundreds of enslaved people on his properties, Carroll considered freeing some of them before his death and later introduced a bill for gradual abolition in Maryland, which had no chance of passage.  At age ninety-one, he laid the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as a member of its board of directors. He died in 1832 at age 95. YES 

Update: Carroll’s cousin was John Carroll, a Jesuit priest, first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, and a founder of Georgetown College. The New York Times has reported how, in 1838, Georgetown sold 272 enslaved people to keep the college financially afloat.

And read more about the Declaration and the Signers in:

DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS (HYPERION PAPERBACK APRIL 15, 2014)

DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS (Hachette Paperback/Random House Audio)

Don't Know Much ABout® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much ABout® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial/Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About Impeachment?

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“An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
–House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (April 1970)

In the summer of 1787, as the framers debated the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin worried about how to get ride of corrupt or incompetent officials. Without some method of removal, the only recourse was assassination.

The other delegates agreed. And after considerable debate, they added the power of impeachment to the list of checks and balances of the legislature on the other two branches.

Read the history of impeachment in this article from Smithsonian, “The History of American Impeachment.”

Read more about the Constitutional power of impeachment in these articles from the National Constitution Center.

“Juneteenth is for Everyone”

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Monday June 19, 2017 is a day to mark “Juneteenth” –a holiday celebrating emancipation at the end of the Civil War.

 

Foods on the Juneteenth altar include beets, strawberries, watermelon, yams and hibiscus tea, as well as a plate of black-eyed peas and cornbread. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

 

 

“SOME two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger steamed into the port of Galveston, Tex. With 1,800 Union soldiers, including a contingent of United States Colored Troops, Granger was there to establish martial law over the westernmost state in the defeated Confederacy.

On June 19, two days after his arrival and 150 years ago today, Granger stood on the balcony of a building in downtown Galveston and read General Order No. 3 to the assembled crowd below. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” he pronounced.” (New York Times June 19, 2015)

Read the complete history of Juneteenth in my New York Times Op-ed, “Juneteenth is for Everyone”. The celebration of the  the holiday and its traditions of foods is highlighted in this New York Times article, “Hot Links and Red Drinks”

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Juneteenth- Time to celebrate

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The official Juneteenth Committee in East Woods Park, Austin, Texas on June 19, 1900. (Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

The official Juneteenth Committee in East Woods Park, Austin, Texas on June 19, 1900. (Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

[Repost of 2014 post]

Happy Juneteenth! Since 1865, June 19th has served as another kind of Independence Day. It is a day that celebrates the end of slavery in America.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger informed former slaves in the area from the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston, Texas that they were free. Abraham Lincoln had officially issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but it had taken two more years of Union victories to end the war in April 1865 and for this news to reach enslaved people  in remote sections of the country.

This is from General Granger’s Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Many of the newly freed slaves in the territory, the last area to receive news of the war’s end and Emancipation, celebrated the news with ecstasy, and according to the Texas State Library, the words “June” and “nineteenth” became a new word and a new celebration of freedom. They called it Juneteenth.

In many parts of Texas, ex-slaves purchased land, or “emancipation grounds,” for the Juneteenth gathering. Examples include: Emancipation Park in Houston, purchased in 1872; what is now Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia; and Emancipation park in East Austin.

Other former slaves began to travel to other states in search of family members who had been separated from them by slave sales.  Starting in 1866, that spontaneous celebration –more commonly called “Juneteenth”– spread to become  a holiday celebrating emancipation in many parts of the United States, although it still lacks national recognition.  Read more about Juneteenth in the article  Juneteenth: Our Other Independence Day , which I wrote for Smithsonian.com

 

 

Don’t Know Much About the Lovings-50 Years Later

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Richard and Mildred Loving at their home in Central Point, Va. with their children, Peggy (from left), Donald and Sidney, in 1967. Free Lance-Star, via Associated Press

[2017 Revision of an earlier post]

When the the Supreme Court made its historic ruling in two cases in 2015 related to marriage equality (“Highlights from the Supreme Court Decisions on Same-Sex Marriage,” New York Times), the decision drew upon the case of Loving v. Virginiadecided by the Supreme Court on June 12, 1967 –50 years ago.

The case involved the law in Virginia, and other states, which prohibited interracial marriage, or “miscegenation.”

Loving v. Virginia changed that. And America.

“Today, one in six newlyweds in the United States has a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, according to a recent analysis of 2015 census data by the Pew Research Center. That is a five-fold increase from 1967, when just 3 percent of marriages crossed ethnic and racial lines.” (Source: New York Times)

Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred, a 18-year-old woman of African-American and Native American descent, in Washington, D.C.  When they returned to their native Virginia, they were arrested in the middle of the night and the Lovings were forced to leave Virginia. A few years later, young Mildred asked Robert F. Kennedy, the new Attorney General, for help. He suggested the American Civil Liberties Union and she wrote to them. Two young lawyers decided to take the case. They brought suit which eventually found its way to the Supreme Court

The Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws, such as those in Virginia, violated the Due Process Clause (“No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….” )  and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …”).

In the unanimous majority opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

“Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”

Change in American history is often slow. And it usually comes from the bottom up –not the top down. Whether it was abolition, civil rights, or even independence itself, when it comes to most of the great social upheavals of our past, the politicians and “leaders” have generally had to be dragged kicking and screaming in the direction of change. It may be glacially slow, but it will happen, in part because there is a generational change that made same sex marriage prohibitions on the books seem as antiquated –and as wrong —as the now-unconstitutional bans on interracial marriage.

Before her death in 2008, Mildred Loving, the young woman who brought the suit against Virginia, issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of the decision. She wrote:

“Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”

The January/February 2012 issue of Humanities  magazine featured the Lovings as did a recent HBO documentary, The Loving Story.

There is a more complete discussion of the history of the Lovings, their case and its connection to the same sex marriage debate in the new, revised edition of Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® Homer Plessy

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[Revision of post from 2012]

What did “separate but equal” mean?

On this date 125 years ago — June 7, 1892– Homer Plessy was arrested when he refused to leave an all-whites railroad car in New Orleans. It was no accident. A 30-year-old shoemaker born to parents who were classed as “free people of color,” Plessy had been chosen to deliberately violate the law so that it could be challenged in court.

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Homer Plessy was seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth black,  an “octaroon” in the parlance of the day, and in facial features, he appeared to be Caucasian. But when he tried to sit in a railroad coach reserved for whites, that one-eighth was all that counted. Plessy was arrested, in accordance with an 1890 Louisiana law separating railroad coaches by race. Assisted by the Comité des Citoyens (“Citizens’ Committee”), a pioneering civil rights group, Plessy fought his arrest all the way to the Supreme Court in 1896.

Unfortunately, this was the same Supreme Court that had protected corporations as “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment, ruled that companies controlling 98 percent of the sugar business weren’t monopolies, and jailed striking workers who were “restraining trade.”

In Plessy’s case, the arch-conservative, business-minded Court showed it was also racist in a decision that was every bit as indecent and unfair as the Dred Scott decision before the Civil War. The majority decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson established a new judicial idea in America—the concept of “separate but equal,” meaning states could legally segregate races in public accommodations, such as railroad cars and public schools. In his majority opinion, delivered on May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Brown wrote,

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 problem with this fine notion, of course, was that every facet of life in the South was increasingly separate —schools, dining areas, trains and later buses, drinking fountains, and lunch counters— but they were never equal.
The lone dissenter in this case was John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) of Kentucky. In his eloquent dissent, Harlan 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. . . . We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law.”

In practical terms,  Plessy v. Ferguson had given the Court’s institutional stamp of approval to segregation and generations of “Jim Crow” laws. It would be another sixty years before another Supreme Court decision overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown v Board of Education.

A transcript of the Plessy ruling can be found in the “100 Milestone Documents” site of the National Archives.

This entry is adapted from the revised and updated Don’t Know Much About® History.

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

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