Descendants Of Civil Rights Titans Plessy, Brown Carry The Torch Many Americans may be familiar with the Supreme Court cases Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Both cases were important legal landmarks in the history of civil rights in the United States. And for some, that history is especially significant and stitched into the stories of their own families. Host Michel Martin speaks with Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, both descendants of the parties in the 1896 Plessy versus Ferguson case. Also joining the conversation is Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, who worked on the the Brown v. Board of Education case.
NPR logo

Descendants Of Civil Rights Titans Plessy, Brown Carry The Torch

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122949668/122949654" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Descendants Of Civil Rights Titans Plessy, Brown Carry The Torch

Descendants Of Civil Rights Titans Plessy, Brown Carry The Torch

Descendants Of Civil Rights Titans Plessy, Brown Carry The Torch

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122949668/122949654" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Many Americans may be familiar with the Supreme Court cases Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Both cases were important legal landmarks in the history of civil rights in the United States. And for some, that history is especially significant and stitched into the stories of their own families. Host Michel Martin speaks with Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, both descendants of the parties in the 1896 Plessy versus Ferguson case. Also joining the conversation is Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, who worked on the the Brown v. Board of Education case.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my thoughts about why big media still matters. It's my Can I Just Tell You commentary, and it's in just a few minutes.

But first, next week, the nation begins its annual observance of Black History Month. And each year, educators try to bring the history of this nation's struggle over race to life. But for some, those battles are more than American history. They are family history. And we'll hear from a few of those voices now.

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson are descendents of the parties in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which affirmed the doctrine of separate but equal, certifying racial segregation as the law of the land. They met in 2004 and later formed the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.

And Cheryl Brown Henderson is the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, one of the men who helped launch the Brown v. Board of Education case. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in that case reversed the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson. She's also the president of the Brown Foundation.

They all came together on Sunday for a special forum at the Brown versus Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, and they are with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms.�PHOEBE FERGUSON: Thank you.

Ms.�CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON (President, Brown Foundation): Thank you for having us.

Mr.�KEITH PLESSY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's begin with you, Cheryl. Your father, Reverend Brown, is the Brown in the board of education case. How did he come to be involved in that case?

Ms.�HENDERSON: The NAACP, in organizing in the Topeka case, recruited parents who would be willing to stand as plaintiffs on behalf of their school-aged children. And so my father was simply asked by the NAACP, by one of the attorneys who had been a friend of his, if he would be willing to be among the plaintiffs they were assembling for this class action case. There were 13 families who were plaintiffs in the Topeka case. We were simply one of them.

MARTIN: Why is he the Brown in the Brown case? Is it because...

Ms.�HENDERSON: Well, I can explain that. When the case was filed in February, 1951, you looked at the roster, there were 12 women and one man, and it was not alphabetical, because one of the women was a woman by the name of Darlene Brown who would have alphabetically been first.

My father was not the first plaintiff. He did not initiate this case, but he was the only man. So we believe that his gender was the principal reason why he was selected to lead the roster of plaintiffs.

MARTIN: That is interesting.

Ms.�HENDERSON: It is. No, I agree. I think it's fascinating for women because, you know, the majority of a lot of these activities had been heavily female, but yet the men oftentimes are the ones whose names survive historically.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. So Keith, let me turn to you. Your ancestor is Homer Plessy. Let me see if I have this right. Now, he was a man of mixed race. In 1892, he refused to get out of the white section of a rail car. Louisiana Judge John Ferguson said he had no right to sit there because there were separate accommodations for black people. And in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision, and Homer Plessy was, let me see, your great-great-grandfather's cousin. How did this play out in your early life? Do you remember? Did you remember this being a big part of family lore?

Mr.�FERGUSON: To tell you the truth, I really never knew the importance or the connection to Homer Plessy. I just knew my name was the same as his, as far as when I was a kid. But in 1996 in New Orleans, there was a celebration of the case, a 100th anniversary, and that's where I met Keith Weldon Medley, the author of the book "We As Freemen: Plessy versus Ferguson." And his research, his in-depth research, helped me a whole lot in 1996 to find out my connection to Homer Plessy, which is where some of the genealogy research was done.

MARTIN: Interesting. Phoebe, what about you? You are the great-great-granddaughter, if I have that right, of Judge John Howard Ferguson, who issued the original ruling. Did you know about this growing up?

Ms.�PLESSY: No, I didn't. I didn't learn about it until I was an adult.

MARTIN: How did you feel about it when you did learn about it? I mean, we would say, I think, now that Judge Ferguson was on the wrong side of history, I think. So how did you feel about it when you heard about it?

Ms.�PLESSY: I was stunned. I was absolutely stunned. I have a brother and sister. I called them. I asked them if they had any inclination. They did not. But we did have - and I had just acquired a family tree from my sister. And literally, while I was on the phone, I was checking this family tree and I saw, you know, the lineage and I saw John Howard Ferguson, and I very quickly found, also, Keith Medley's book and contacted him.

MARTIN: Well, why did you want to reach out to him?

Ms. FERGUSON: Because when I started to do a little research on my own, the very first call I made was to the Louisiana State Law Library, and perhaps naively, I asked them if they had any papers from the judge. And the librarian, who was very kind said, no we dont actually have them, but there's a brand new book out that has devoted an entire chapter to the judge and his history and who he is and why - how he got on the court and why he made the decision that he made.

MARTIN: So you wanted to know more about him.

Ms. FERGUSON: Absolutely. And, you know, as it turns out, he was not from New Orleans. He was born in Martha's Vineyard, and he went to Boston to study law. He worked for an abolitionist lawyer there, who was his mentor. And then in 1865, after the Civil War, you know, he came to New Orleans and within a year, he married the daughter of T.J. Earhart, who was also a fierce abolitionist in New Orleans.

So that kind of information makes you wonder what was his own bias, political feelings, racial feelings. And I deduce, and so does Keith Medley, that race was not his issue. But he upheld the existing law based on the issue, which was can states constitutionally enact legislation requiring person of different races to use separate but equal segregated facilities? And at that time, the answer was yes.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the living legacies of two pivotal cases in America's racial history.

Our guests are Cheryl Brown Henderson. She is the daughter of the late Reverend Oliver Brown of the historic Brown vs. Board of Ed. case. Also with us are Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson. They are descendants of the parties in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson.

So what's interesting, as I understand it, that over the years, because of each of you and your awareness of your connection to this history have received, perhaps, some unexpected feedback about it in a way that people might not expect. Now Cheryl, as I understand it - do I have this right that Claude Brown, the author of "Manchild in the Promise Land" actually - I don't know if he personally confronted you at a college forum...

Ms. HENDERSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...or you heard him talking about this at a college forum. Could you just talk about that?

Ms. HENDERSON: Yes. When I was attending college, an undergrad, one of the speakers that came to our campus was Claude Brown. This was during the period of a lot of activism around the country around civil rights. And one of the statements he made during his speech was that everybody knows that Brown v. Board of Education was pretty much BS. And, of course, he actually used the word. And, of course, the audience then, knowing that was on campus, looked to me for some response and some retort to what he'd said. And, of course, he's speaking from the standpoint of the activist that wanted more overt action taken.

You know, we were on the cusp of what was going on with Dr. King and the nonviolent movement, the Black Panther Party had emerged. And so there was really kind of a dichotomy, if you will, going on around, you know, what do we really want. And so Brown v. Board was seen as old school, if I can borrow a current phrase, and not something that was really activism and really action-oriented. It was the law.

MARTIN: Keith, what about you? Whats the most surprising or interesting thing youve heard from people once they know about your connection to Homer Plessy?

Mr. PLESSY: I would say the worse incident I ever had encountered was when there was a history convention at the hotel where I work. And one history professor who taught at Jackson State pulled me to the side. She looked at my name on the name tag and she said, people need to know about your ancestor's case, you know. She said, its just that some people dont even have knowledge of the case.

And she pulled me to the garage and we were talking, and there were some other history professors. And she said hey, let me introduce you guys to one of my friends I just met. She says this is Keith Plessy. You recognize the name? And these were history professors. And they said, what's the name? She says he's a relative of Plessy in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, and they looked at her again, kind of scratched their heads, and said what case is this?

MARTIN: They didnt know?

Mr. PLESSY: No. And she pulled me over to the side from guys and said, look. Do you see the urgency of what I'm telling you? She said you need to go out and talk about the case and let people know what happened.

MARTIN: Does that play...

Ms. HENDERSON: This is Cheryl. That's just what's wrong with education. It's not that these milestones haven't occurred. Its that we are not necessarily doing a comprehensive job of educating our children, or even, for that matter, our college professors and our educators.

MARTIN: That is very surprising to me. But what about - and Keith, it may be an odd question, but I'm curious, because now we are engaged in a debate about the civil rights - or human rights, if you will - of another group of people, same gender-loving people, who are pursuing, in many venues, marriage equality. And there are those who blame these advocates, saying that youre just making it hard for the rest of us because youre stimulating a backlash. And I do wonder if there are some who've made that argument to you, that Homer Plessy just stimulated a backlash, that he turned want was a regional law and a regional custom into national law and national custom. And I just wondered if youd ever heard that.

Mr. PLESSY: Yeah, I've heard that. But even worse, I've heard that the Plessy-Ferguson caused segregation. And ever since I learned about my ancestor's connection to the case, the importance of the case, the Citizens Committee, and so forth, that I've always wanted to thank the Brown family, because in essence, what they did was vindicate my ancestor. They redeemed his case. And for 58 years, segregation became the law of the land, but it wasnt because of the Plessy case, because it was the first case would probably be considered to go to the U.S. Supreme Court against segregation. You know, it just made me think...

Ms. HENDERSON: I would agree, Keith. It's Cheryl. I agree with you, and I think that the case that really set us down the path of separate but equal was the Dred Scott case in 1857.

Mr. PLESSY: Yes.

Ms. HENDERSON: Because it was the Dred Scott case, where the United States Supreme Court ruled that African-Americans had no rights. And it turned the things - and I'm glad you brought that up, because the fact of the matter is, you know, the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston and that whole legal team are the ones that really took the step to make sure this was a case that was winnable. And all of the families that were involved in Brown v. Brown of Education, we owe them a debt of gratitude. So I'm always careful not to allow the thanks to rest on our shoulders, because it is misplaced on our shoulders.

MARTIN: I was going say, maybe we could thank you, and you could pass it on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENDERSON: Yes. And I do pass it on, I want you to know, because I make anybody listen that makes that statement to me in saying yes, we are all very appreciative of what the NAACP was able to do.

MARTIN: Phoebe, what about you? And I'm going to - in the time we have left, I do want to hear from Phoebe to see if - Ferguson is, I think, perhaps a bit more common a name than Plessy. But I am interested to know if since your connection to that case has become known, has anyone has anything interesting to say to you about it?

Ms. FERGUSON: Well, I'll tell you, the most surprising experience for me since this had happened is when I do tell people about my connection to the case, the reaction is excitement that Keith Plessy and I are together. And the most common phrase used is, oh, that gives me goose bumps. And my favorite story is when we met, Keith came up to me and said, hi, I'm Keith Plessy. And I said, hi, I'm Phoebe Ferguson. And without missing a beat, Keith said, it's no longer Plessy vs. Ferguson. It's Plessy and Ferguson.

MARTIN: And Cheryl...

Mr. PLESSY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Cheryl, what did you hope to accomplish by bringing all of you together?

Ms. HENDERSON: In 2004, of course, we opened Brown vs. Board of Education National Park. And each month we have public programs, so we're all about public education. So what we're hoping to accomplish is to deal with reconciliation of our past. We cannot escape our past. I think it's healthier to embrace it and then determine how it will have inform the way we go forward as a nation.

MARTIN: Cheryl Brown Henderson is the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown of the Brown v. Board of Education case, and she is the president of the Brown Foundation. She joined us from member station KANU in Lawrence, Kansas. Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson are descendants of the parties in the historic Plessy vs. Ferguson case. Together, they lead the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, and they joined us from the studios of WWNO in New Orleans.

I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. FERGUSON: Thank you.

Ms. HENDERSON: Thank you.

Mr. PLESSY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.