Four years later, Plessy was a plaintiff in a case - Plessy v. Ferguson - that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which on this day, May 18, in 1896, upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine.
A print of Homer Plessy, plaintiff in the 1896 Supreme Court case that legalized the doctrine of 'separate but equal.' (image courtesy of the website 'History in the Big Easy')
Rejecting Plessy's argument that his constitutional rights were violated, the high court ruled that a state law that "implies merely a legal distinction" between whites and blacks did not conflict with the 13th and 14th Amendments.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, argued that forced segregation of the races stamped African Americans with a badge of inferiority. That same line of argument would become a decisive factor in another landmark case that laid the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"Separate but equal" remained in place in America until 1954, when the Supreme Court revisited the concept in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education, asserting the right of black children to attend all white public schools.
FILE - A group of students at the Russell High School in Atlanta, Ga., gather around a radio shortly after noon to hear news that segregation has been ruled out in public schools in a unanimous Supreme Court decision on May 17, 1954.
In a unanimous and historic decision, the justices found that "separate but equal has no place in the U.S. Constitution," reasoning that it was a clear violation of the 14th amendment, which guaranteed equal protection for all citizens.