Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation

By Steve Luxenberg. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. 624 pages. $35/hardcover; $19.95/paperback; $29.73/eBook.

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This book is a history of a tumultuous time in our country and, at over 600 pages, a massive one at that. What a daunting task: to explain how our nation went from slavery to segregation—a story that most of us believe we know but don’t.

I would call this story a slow train wreck that compels you to watch even knowing the horrible end. No, more like a Greek tragedy. And yet, not that either, since there is no one hero with a tragic flaw as much as a cast of characters from the North and South who lived during the times before, during, and after the Civil War: both good and flawed, and ambitious and not. Unlike many histories, not all of the voices are White men. Wives and daughters, slaves and freedmen all speak in this history—and not just about big events but how those big events fit into and sometimes overwhelm growing up, finding a career, and starting a family. (Note that, as it is a history, there may be language some will find offensive, which exists primarily in quotes.)

The narrative of this story, as written by Washington Post editor Steve Luxenberg, is compelling. He writes not as a reporter but as a storyteller, someone who can have you riveted to his tales for hours on end. He writes the stories of the people who were part of the Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 Supreme Court decision, which created the legal fiction of “separate but equal” that shaped so much of the culture of the United States in the twentieth century. The chaos of pre- and post-Civil War America plays out before your eyes.

The book opens with a list of 13 main characters. They are people you may believe you know, such as Frederick Douglass, and others whom you likely have never heard of, such as Daniel Desdunes, who was arrested months before Homer Plessy in the first attempt to bring segregated seating on public transportation to the court. Desdunes, a light-skinned musician, like Plessy and later Rosa Parks, was carefully selected to insist on sitting in a Whites-only railway car to trigger arrest and a court case. Through a series of happenstances and the careful parsing of the law, he “won” his federal case, but it was an illusionary victory, as state laws supporting segregated travel still existed after the dust had settled.

“Just like the people swept up in the case, the story behind Plessy is neither plain nor simple,” Luxenberg warns in his prologue. “It sprawls and snakes through almost a century of American history, beginning at the dawn of the railroad age in the North, germinating in the soil of slavery and the Civil War . . . and then bursting forth at the end of the nineteenth century as separation took root in nearly every aspect of American life.” The story starts on a train in Massachusetts in the late 1830s with abolitionists demanding the banishment of separate “Jim Crow” coaches for colored passengers; this was an early use of the phrase that later described laws of racial segregation directed against Black people. It wanders out west to Missouri, Ohio, and Kansas with the struggles of those who wanted the Union to remain without uprooting slavery, then South to Louisiana, where Creoles who had wealth and status were gradually losing their rights. It then goes back up to New York where, since under the Dred Scott decision Black people were not citizens and could not serve in the military, only poor Whites who could not afford to hire a replacement were drafted—until they rioted.

This is also a history of the law in legislatures, towns, and courts: the pull between private rights and public ones, between federal rights and state rights. Beginning with the decision that private railroad companies could make the rules they wanted, to the decision in Dred Scott that no Black person could be a citizen, free or not, and finally to the Plessy decision itself of “separate but equal,” Luxenberg winds a story about not just the law, but also the people who create, enforce, and challenge it. The real hero of the story for me is Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Southerner and son of a Kentucky slaveholder, who saw truths his Northern colleagues didn’t grasp in their somewhat sheltered lives. They convinced themselves that “separate but equal” was possible. Harlan had seen otherwise. As the sole dissenter, Harlan wrote, “In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.”

Sadly, he was only too right. Luxenberg explains:

The ruling in Plessy drew little attention at the time, but its baneful effects lasted longer than any other civil rights decision in American history. It gave legal cover to an increasingly pernicious series of discriminatory laws in the first half of the twentieth century. Under the banner of keeping the races apart, much of white America stood silent as black Americans suffered beatings, assaults, and murders. . . . This culture of violence flourished, primarily but not exclusively in the South, because some proponents of separation embraced the twisted notion that enforcing laws of racial separation had a higher priority than liberty, justice, fairness, or opportunity.

This book, in many respects, reflects and highlights the turmoil we are going through today: frightening and hard to predict where it is going, but evoking that same slow train wreck anticipation of the horror that may come.

It is a compelling read, and I will be reading it again.

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