Landmark US Supreme Court Case Continues to Spark Historical Inquiry

Did you know, the landmark US Supreme Court case, Plessy v Ferguson, recently featured in a CSPAN segment, has ties to Western New York? The attorney representing the plaintiff, Homer Plessy, was a man by the name of Albion Winegar Tourgee. Tourgee was originally from Ohio and was a Civil War veteran. After a stint as a lawyer and judge in Reconstruction North Carolina, he eventually settled in Westfield, New York where he continued to practice law, author many books and articles, and ardently advocate for civil rights for African Americans until his death in 1905.  Tourgee’s papers remained in Westfield and eventually ended up at the McClurg Museum, home of the Chautauqua County Historical Society (CCHS). The physical collection of over 20,000 documents, including a substantial number relating to Tourgee’s work on behalf of the “Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Railroad Car Act” (the group who organized Homer Plessy’s challenge to the segregationist laws) are being preserved and made available through the ongoing efforts of the CCHS.

In 2014, with a grant from the Library of Congress, Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS), WNYLRC and the University at Buffalo’s Preservation  Department were able to digitize about 200 of the items in the collection, which can now be accessed through New York Heritage. The items include correspondence between Tourgee and the Citizens Committee, Tourgee’s personally typed oral argument he prepared for the Supreme Court hearing and, many letters from people across the country experiencing the inequalities, injustices and inhumanity of racism in the second half of the 20th century.

The CSPAN segment aired on March 19 and can be seen here:
There was also a brief clip featuring the original documents from Albion Tourgee’s oral argument on behalf of Homer Plessy in front of the Supreme Court justices, that was described by Trustee and Curator of the Chautauqua County Historical Society, John Paul Wolfe:

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