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Separate Car Act

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Separate Car Act

Florida became the first state to legally require and enforce segregated railway cars in 1887. Several states followed suit including Mississippi and Texas. However, when Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act in 1890, something new happened.

A group of citizens concerned with protecting civil rights decided to challenge the law. The New Orleans Citizens’ Committee brought the case all the way to the Supreme Court where it would make history as Plessy vs Ferguson.

Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890 Definition

The Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890 was a Louisiana state law that required railway companies to have separate railway cars for Black and white passengers. Passengers had to sit in their assigned cars. The Separate Car Act included legal consequences for companies and passengers who did not abide by the law. Railway directors and railway officers themselves could also face legal action if they failed to comply.

Louisiana Separate Car Act Text

Let's take a look at the actual text of the Louisiana Separate Car Act.

Section I of the Louisiana Separate Car Act laid out the requirement of separate railway cars for black and white passengers:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana, that all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races”

No person or persons shall be permitted to occupy seats in coaches other than the ones assigned to them on account of the race they belong to.”

Section II outlined the punishment for passengers and railway officers who did not abide by the law:

Any passenger insisting on going into a coach or compartment to which by race he does not belong, shall be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars or in lieu thereof to imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days in the parish prison”

Any officer of any railroad insisting on assigning a passenger to a coach or compartment other than the one set aside for the race to which said passenger belongs, shall be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars or in lieu thereof imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days in the parish prison”

In simple words, both passengers and conductors who violated the law would either have to pay a $25 fine or go to jail for 20 days at most.

Section III outlined even more punishments, focusing on railway directors, officers, and conductors.

And, lastly, Section IV repealed any laws that contradicted the new Act.

Louisiana Separate Car Act Background

The Louisiana Separate Car Act was one of many discriminatory Jim Crow laws that pervaded the South following the Reconstruction Era. After Reconstruction, Southern Democrats were out from Northern control so local and state governments in the South were free to enact laws as they pleased.

The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877)

the period after the Civil War when the North was working to reconstruct the governments of Southern states and forming a plan for their re-entry

Jim Crow laws were an attempt to take the rights away from Black citizens that were granted by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Jim Crow laws essentially legalized segregation as in the case of the Separate Car Act where Black and white passengers had to ride in different railway cars.

Louisiana Separate Car Act Reception

Although Louisiana was in the South, it had once been French territory. As a result, Black and white citizens had a somewhat better relationship than in other Southern states. However, after the end of Reconstruction, Louisiana joined the South in enacting Jim Crow laws of their own.

After the Louisiana Separate Car Act passed in 1890, a group of citizens came together to form the New Orleans Citizens’ Committee. They wished to challenge the Separate Car Act.

Louisiana Separate Car Act: Plessy vs Ferguson

The New Orleans Citizens’ Committee reached out to Homer Plessy and asked him to be the center of their carefully crafted case. Homer Plessy, only one-eighth African, was to sit in a car meant for white citizens only. He appeared Caucasian to the eye which was meant to show how arbitrary the law really was.

The train conductor, working with the Citizens' Committee would approach Plessy and ask him to leave. Plessy was to refuse, and then, the private detective the Citizens’ Committee had hired could charge him with violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act.

Did you know? The New Orleans Citizens’ Committee had the support of the railroad company, but not because of the company’s overwhelming support for civil rights. The company was unhappy with the unnecessary costs that came with making separate railway cars.

Homer Plessy agreed, and they went through with the plan in 1892. The case came before Judge John H. Ferguson. Plessy’s lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment which granted every citizen, regardless of race, equality under the law. Judge Ferguson denied this argument and convicted Plessy. Plessy then filed a petition against him.

In 1896, Plessy vs Ferguson went to the Supreme Court where the Supreme Court Justices ruled against Homer Plessy in a 7-1 decision. The Supreme Court Justices said it was okay to have separate railway cars so long as they were equal in condition. This doctrine of “separate but equal” was the perfect loophole for the Equal Protection Clause and legally protected Jim Crow laws.

Separate Car Act Political Cartoon StudySmarterPolitical cartoon showing segregated railway cars, commons.wikimedia.org

Significance of the Louisiana Separate Car Act

The Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890 was just one of many Jim Crow laws passed in Southern states after Reconstruction. In fact, Louisiana wasn’t even the first state to pass a law segregating railway cars. The Louisiana Separate Car Act is significant because The New Orleans Citizens’ Committee challenged it.

Homer Plessy and the New Orleans Citizens’ Committee brought the Separate Car Act to the Supreme Court where the case made history as Plessy vs Ferguson. The “separate but equal” doctrine that came out of the case became precedent and legally protected discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the South. It was not overturned until Brown vs Board of Education legally ended segregation in 1954.

precedent

an earlier decision that guides future rulings regarding the same topic

Louisiana Separate Car Act - Key takeaways

  • The Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890 was a Jim Crow law enforcing segregation.
  • It required railroad companies to have separate railway cars for Black and white passengers. Passengers had to sit in their assigned cars.
  • The New Orleans Citizens' Committee challenged the Separate Car Act with the help of Homer Plessy who was willing to face arrest.
  • The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the Justices ruled against Homer Plessy in Plessy vs Ferguson.
  • The Supreme Court Justices established the "separate but equal" doctrine that legally protected segregation until Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

Frequently Asked Questions about Separate Car Act

The Supreme Court ruled that the Separate Car Act did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment in Plessy v Ferguson. They reversed their decision in 1954 with Brown vs Board of Education

Critics of the Separate Car Act claimed it violated the Thirteenth Amendment by putting recently freed black citizens back into the conditions of slavery.  The Supreme Court did not agree. 

The Separate Car Act was in place for over 60 years. 

The Separate Car Act was a Jim Crow law.

The Separate Car Act became unconstitutional in 1954 when Brown vs Board of Education legally ended segregation.

Final Separate Car Act Quiz

Question

When was the Louisiana Separate Car Act passed?

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Answer

1890

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Question

Which state first passed legislation requiring segregated railway cars?

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Answer

Florida

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Question

What were the two legal consequences passengers had to choose from if they disobeyed the guidelines of the Separate Car Act?

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Answer

$25 fine

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Question

What type of law was the Separate Car Act?

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Answer

a Jim Crow law

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Question

What was unique about Louisiana's history compared to other Southern states?

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Answer

It used to be French territory. 

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Question

What was the name of the civil rights group that challenged the Separate Car Act?

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Answer

New Orleans Citizens' Committee

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Question

When did the Louisiana Separate Car Act become unconstitutional?

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Answer

1954

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Question

What court case upheld the legality of the Separate Car Act?

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Answer

Plessy vs Ferguson

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Question

Who was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act?

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Answer

Homer Plessy

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Question

What doctrine allowed the segregation of the Louisiana Separate Car Act to continue? 

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Answer

"separate but equal"

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