Along with disenfranchisement, the 1890s saw the widespread imposition of segregation in the South. Laws and local customs requiring the separation of the races had numerous precedents. They had existed in many parts of the pre-Civil War North. Southern schools and many other institutions had been segregated during Reconstruction. In the 1880s, however, southern race relations remained unsettled. Some railroads, theaters, and hotels admitted blacks and whites on an equal basis while others separated them by race or excluded blacks altogether.
African-Americans of all ages were required to abide by segregation laws. Here, in a twentieth-century photograph, a youth is about to drink from a “colored” water fountain.
In 1883, in the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had outlawed racial discrimination by hotels, theaters, railroads, and other public facilities. The Fourteenth Amendment, the Court insisted, prohibited unequal treatment by state authorities, not private businesses. In 1896, in the landmark decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court gave its approval to state laws requiring separate facilities for blacks and whites. The case arose in Louisiana, where the legislature had required railroad companies to maintain a separate car or section for black passengers. A Citizens Committee of black residents of New Orleans came together to challenge the law. To create a test case, Homer Plessy, a light-skinned African-American, refused a conductor’s order to move to the “colored only” part of his railroad car and was arrested.
To argue the case before the Supreme Court, the Citizens Committee hired Albion W. Tourgee, who as a judge in North Carolina during Reconstruction had waged a courageous battle against the Ku Klux Klan. “Citizenship is national and knows no color,” he insisted, and racial segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection before the law. But in an 8-1 decision, the Court upheld the Louisiana law, arguing that segregated facilities did not discriminate so long as they were “separate but equal.” The lone dissenter, John Marshall Harlan, reprimanded the majority with an oft-quoted comment: “Our constitution is color-blind.” Segregation, he insisted, sprang from whites’ conviction that they were the “dominant race” (a phrase used by the Court’s majority), and it violated the principle of equal liberty. To Harlan, freedom for the former slaves meant the right to participate fully and equally in American society.