1890 La. Acts No. 111, p. 152, § 1 provides: All railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races, by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations: Provided, That this section shall not be construed to apply to street railroads. No person or persons, shall be admitted to occupy seats in coaches, other than, the ones, assigned, to them on account of the race they belong to.
Plessy, the petitioner, was a citizen of the United States and a resident of the State of Louisiana and of mixed descent, seven eighths Caucasian and one eighth African blood; however, the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every right, privilege and immunity secured to citizens of the United States of the white race. On June 7, 1892, he engaged and paid for a first class passage on the East Louisiana Railway from New Orleans to Covington, in the same State, and thereupon entered a passenger train, and took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated. However, Plessy was required by the conductor, under penalty of ejection from said train and imprisonment, to vacate said coach and occupy another seat in a coach assigned by said company for persons not of the white race, and for no other reason than that Plessy was of the colored race. Having refused to comply with such demand, Plessy was forcibly ejected with the aid of a police officer, and imprisoned in the parish jail to answer a charge of having violated the 1890 La. Acts No. 111, p. 152, an act of the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana, passed in 1890, which provided for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races. Petitioner argued that the statute was unconstitutional because it was in conflict with both the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits certain restrictive legislation on the part of the States. Plessy’s petition for writ of prohibition was denied by the state supreme court, hence this appeal.
Was 1890 La. Acts No. 111, p. 152, an act which provided for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races, violative of the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution?
The Court held that the statute did not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment. According to the Court, a statute that implied merely a legal distinction between differing races did not tend to destroy the legal equality of the two races or to reestablish a state of involuntary servitude. Furthermore, the Court ruled that the statute did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. In determining whether the statute was a reasonable regulation, the Louisiana legislature was given a large amount of discretion; the legislature was at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to preserving public peace and good order. The Court rejected Plessy’s argument that the separation of the two races stamped one race with a badge of inferiority. A legislature had to secure for its citizens equal rights before the law. If one race was inferior to another socially, the Federal Constitution could not put the two races upon the same plane.