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

Steve Luxenberg. Norton, $35 (560p) ISBN 978-0-393-23937-9
The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the legality of “separate but equal” facilities for white and black Americans, is widely viewed as the beginning of the jim crow era in the South, but, as journalist Luxenberg convincingly argues, it was the result of decades of debate about race relations. The case of Homer Plessy, a New Orleanian “fair-skinned enough to cause confusion” about which car he should occupy on the state’s segregated trains, was actually a test case engineered by the city’s community of mixed-racial-heritage people, who saw their prestige and power slipping away as the nation moved toward a less nuanced conception of race. In lucid prose, Luxenberg lays out the history of racialized segregation in the North and South of the United States and offers vivid portraits of main actors in this civil rights struggle, from ex-slave abolitionist Frederick Douglass to judge John Marshall Harlan (raised in Kentucky, but a staunch supporter of the Union during the Civil War) and lawyer Albion Tourgee, whose Civil War military service awakened him to the “full awfulness” of slavery. Some readers may find this exhaustively researched account excessively wordy and too detailed, but Luxenberg provides a useful take on one of the Supreme Court’s most influential decisions. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 12/10/2018
Release date: 02/12/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
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