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Author explores the personalities of the men who argued Plessy v. Ferguson, one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions

Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg, Norton, 2019; $35

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the 14th Amendment guarantee of “equal protection of the law” allowed segregation by race as long as all were provided equal facilities. Plessy ranks as one of the court’s most important decisions, not for breaking legal ground—it did not—but for kicking off a wave of laws and social practices grouped beneath the label “Jim Crow” and so tenacious that the nation needed a half century to even begin to shed them.

Justice John Marshall Harlan

Scholars have explored in detail the legal background and ramifications of the case, which challenged a Louisiana law requiring separate railroad coaches for black and white passengers. However, as Washington Post associate editor Steve Luxenberg realized, no author had tied the whole story of post-Civil War racial separation to the specific litigation. Separate is Luxenberg’s massive attempt to fill that gap. He does so by focusing on three men—Albion Tougėe, primary lawyer at the Supreme Court for the Creole passenger challenging the segregated coaches law; Justice Henry Brown, who wrote the majority opinion upholding separate but equal treatment of blacks; and Justice John Marshall Harlan, left, the sole dissenter. Alternating chapters trace the lives of the three men, their wives, and their associates. The actual Plessy case gets relatively few pages.

Digging for more than six years, Luxenberg seems not to have left unread any letter written by—or to—his protagonists, nor left any family scrapbook unperused or obscure memoir unshelved from a library stack. The resultant 500-page narrative and accompanying 100 pages of notes effectively chart the major clash, especially within the Republican Party, over America’s treatment of freed blacks, their role in society, and their status relative to the ever-free colored Creoles of New Orleans. An impressive accomplishment!

And yet. Juggling three parallel lives across decades while chronicling each character’s philosophical and political development is a complex literary task. The very scholarship that makes Luxenberg’s so meritorious an effort generates a plethora of personal side stories and meaningless details that blur his main story. Bottom line: Separate is an admirable work, but perhaps recommended only for those with a really deep interest in the politics of race in 19th century America.

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