Separate But Equal

May 18, 1896
Plessy v. Fergusan

For over 50 years, the states of the American South enforced a policy of separate accommodations for blacks and whites on buses and trains, and in hotels, theaters, and schools. On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson law case that separate-but-equal facilities on trains were constitutional. One justice, John Marshall Harlan, disagreed with the ruling and argued that separating blacks from whites (called segregation) in public facilities created inequality and marked one race as inferior to another.

African American legislator Benjamin W. Arnett described a train ride in segregated Ohio in 1886: “I have traveled in this free country for 20 hours without anything to eat; not because I had no money to pay for it, but because I was colored. Other passengers of a lighter hue had breakfast, dinner and supper. In traveling we are thrown in [cars for blacks only], denied the privilege of buying a berth in the sleeping coach.” How did this inequality by law finally change?

By the 1930s, the practice of racial segregation was still widespread. When devastating floods hit Arkansas in 1937, for example, white refugees and black refugees were cared for in separate relief facilities. Finally, after hearing arguments by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court reversed the Plessy decision on May 17, 1954. In Brown v. the Board of Education, a unanimous Court agreed with what Justice Harlan had said 50 years ago, that segregation was unconstitutional. What do you know about laws that kept people separated and about later laws that disallowed this practice?