Fighting the Separate Car Laws

Ironically, it was a small cadre of foreign-born and first-generation American men of African descent who became the leading advocates for equal rights in the late 19th century.  Barbados native, David Augustus Straker represented Edward Gies in the Michigan State Supreme Court case Ferguson v. Gies; while Rudolph Lucien Desdunes, a first generation American from Haitian Creole and Cuban immigrant parents joined Albion Tourgee in representing Homer Plessy in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme decision. The Crusader newspaper, established in 1889, with Louis Martinet as publisher became the leading voice in New Orleans against the segregation on train cars. In 1890, the Louisiana state legislature passed a law requiring railroad companies to provide separate cars for “white” people and “people of color.” On September 1, 1891, eighteen individuals met at the offices of The Crusader to formally establish the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law. Committee members included Arthur Esteves (President), Firmin Christophe (Secretary), Paul Bonseigneur (Treasurer), G. G. Johnson (Assistant Secretary), L.J. Joubert, R. L. Desdunes, and Martinet among others.

Letter, Louis A. Martinet to Albion Winegar Tourgée, 1891-10-05. Courtesy of Chautauqua County Historical Society.