Plessy v. Ferguson certainly ranks as one of the Supreme Court’s most injudicious rulings. While historically aware Americans probably could identify the 1896 case as upholding the concept of “separate but equal” in public accommodations, few of this number likely know much about its origins or principal actors. Despite nearly a decade teaching U.S. history survey courses and assigning the majority opinion of Justice Henry Brown and blistering dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan, I knew practically nothing about these men’s biographies before reading Steve Luxenberg’s new book.
Luxenberg, a writer and former Washington Post editor, uses the lives of these two men, along with lawyer Albion Tourgée, as well as a collective portrait of free blacks in New Orleans, to take readers through this important period in the American past. Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation is narrative history at its best, at times a page-turner that illuminates the triumphs, tragedies, and flaws of a highly engaging cast of characters whose actions threw a long shadow over the 20th century.