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One often reads that in 1896 in the case of Plessy versus Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court let stand a Louisiana law, the Separate Car Act, that required white and non-white passengers to ride in separate cars on trains. But what is the story of the political events leading to the passage of that law in 1892 (if 1892 is right)?

Some wild guesses:

  • Passenger trains were starting to become big business but earlier they'd played a more minor role in the transportation industry in Louisiana, and so escaped the attention of the legislature. When large numbers of people started using them, some regulation started happening. As I said, a wild guess; I have no idea whether this is true.
  • Could it have been a reaction by segregationists against some partial desegregation by some railroads? I can imagine some economic incentives to partial desegregation. Say the tickets on the white car are sold out and some passengers who want to get where they're going don't mind riding in "colored" car if that will accomplish their purpose. Again, a wild guess.
  • Google "Jim Crow". – Pieter Geerkens Feb 16 '16 at 19:40
  • @PieterGeerkens : This was only one instance of "Jim Crow". – Michael Hardy Feb 16 '16 at 21:55
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It was 1890, not 1892, when Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act.

The political events that led to these Jim Crow laws were white supremacy that the Civil War and Reconstruction failed to eliminate (they didn't make a dent), the end of Reconstruction, and numerous decisions by the Waite Supreme Court. The end of Reconstruction resulted in Federal troops being withdrawn from the south. Those Federal troops protected the voting rights of the freed slaves. Without their presence, the freedmen found it harder and harder to vote. The Waite Supreme Court issued several decisions that narrowed the scope of the Civil War Amendments and made it easier for the south to disenfranchise the freed slaves.

The Republican-led southern state legislatures were replaced with Democrats soon after Reconstruction ended in 1877. Southern states started passing Jim Crow laws shortly thereafter. By the 1890s, those laws kept white and non-white separate on trains and trolleys, in restaurants and theaters, in restrooms and around drinking fountains, but most importantly, out of polling booths. All kinds of places where people might come together were subject to the numerous Jim Crow laws.


Passenger trains were starting to become big business but earlier they'd played a more minor role in the transportation industry in Louisiana, and so escaped the attention of the legislature.

This is exactly backwards. Passenger trains were very big business in the 1880s and 1890s. The Separate Car Act was one of the very first post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws passed in Louisiana. It preceded banning of interracial marriage by four years, mandating separate public schools by seven years, mandating separate bars (drinking establishments) by eighteen years.

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    There's an intriguing line in there. Talking about when the SCA was proposed: "... also argued that it would put Louisiana in line with other Southern states." So perhaps a better question would be why Louisiana was slow to get on the segregation bandwagon in this instance? – T.E.D. Feb 16 '16 at 22:20
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    @T.E.D. - That's a different question. And they weren't that slow. Florida passed it's equivalent of the Separate Car Act in 1887, Mississippi in 1888, Texas in 1889, and Alabama and Georgia in 1891 (the latter two after Louisiana). – David Hammen Feb 17 '16 at 7:23
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    Also noteworthy is that several of the southern states passed equivalents of a Separate Car Act in 1865 or 1866. These however were all either explicitly overturned or deemed to be unconstitutional during the Reconstruction era. Reinstating those "black codes" apparently was a very high priority once the Democrats took over the southern governments. (Keep in mind that the Dixiecrats of those years were the not the Democrats of today.) – David Hammen Feb 17 '16 at 7:30
  • The civil war ended in 1865. So I wonder why it took 25 years until this was passed. How long did the withdrawal of federal troops take? – Michael Hardy Mar 3 '16 at 19:11
  • @MichaelHardy - The federal troops withdrew in 1877 (early 1877). This marked the end of the Reconstruction era. – David Hammen Mar 4 '16 at 1:47

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