The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation

By Jim Cullen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
KING OF AMERICA:
THE DREAM OF EQUALITY

HOMER PLESSY was not a slave. Born in New Orleans on March 17, 1862—six months to the day before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—he was the son of Creole parents. Although Plessy and his entire family were lightskinned and “passed” as white, his great-grandmother was of African descent. This meant, according to Louisiana law, that he was legally black. Unlike many African Americans—or “negroes, ” as they were called in polite circles at the time—Plessy, who grew up to become a shoemaker, had been a free man his entire life. Nobody owned him; nobody could buy or sell him. He could say what he pleased, go where he wanted. He enjoyed a series of constitutionally protected rights as a United States citizen.

Of course, as a negro, there were certain, shall we say, considerations. Nobody owned him, but if he was ever unfortunate enough to go to jail (something statistically more likely for him than for a white man), he might end up on a chain gang performing forced labor. He could say what he pleased, but as surely he understood, some things (particularly those critical of the state of race relations) could only be said at his own risk. He could go where he wanted, assuming he had the means (and obeyed the prevailing rules, like sticking among his own kind). He

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