Plessy and Ferguson: Descendants discussed turning divisive case into united non-profit

Jun 06, 2011

Once it was Plessy versus Ferguson. Now it's Plessy and Ferguson. Keith Plessy, the decedent of the man who tested Louisiana's law requiring separate railroad cars for whites and blacks, and Pheobe Ferguson, the great-great-granddaughter of the judge who upheld it, chatted about how they came together to create the The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.

Related: Plessy and Ferguson: Descendants of a divisive Supreme Court decision unite

Hi everyone, 

This is Phoebe Ferguson of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation in New Orleans, La. I am happy to be here today to speak with you and anwer any of your questions. 

Hi everyone!  This is Keith.  I'm ready to take your questions. 

How did you find each other and who first suggested forming a group?

We were introduced to each other by Keith Weldon Medley who wrote the book, We as Freemen: Plessy vs Ferguson. 

Keith Medley and Brenda Square, a long time historian and archivist, supported the idea of forming a foundation together.

We met at a book siging, the book "We as Free Men: Plessy vs. Ferguson" was written by Keith Medley.  He wrote the bok and it went into detail about the lives of John Howard Ferguson, the judge, and Plessy, the shoemaker.  I don't think there was a book that had as much information and resesarch to date.  At the book signing here in New Orleans Keith invited us both (who we had met at different times).  The suggestion of the foundation being formed didn't realy come out until abut 2007.  there was a article in the Times-Picayunne when we made the front page unexpectedly.  We met at an exhibt in the French Quarter.  People didn't know we had met before so they thought this was a big deal.  It was a surprise to many people.  From that point on we began to seriously think about forming a foundation.

Our friendship started in 2004.  The minute we met each other we became instant friends.  We had our friendship blossom and had Katrina as part of the makeup. 

What activites are being planned by the Plessy and Ferguson organization? How will you spread your message of reconciliation?

Well, we are currently working on planning a bus ride from New Olreans to Washington D.C. for the National March on Washington on July 30th. This is a conference and protest of the inequities in public education that are resulting from the current 'Reform' movement in education now sweeping the country. We feel that corporations and private management companies are not providing true democratic choices for families. Along with the mandates of high stakes testing, many children are actually being pushed out of their schools.


We always to celebrate Homer Plessy Day every year.  We also plan to advertise the next few plaques we will place.  For education we are in a contanst visitiation schedule (random, and sometimes we know in advance) to schools, universities, places of businesses, libraries to spread the message and understanding of the case.

Preservation, we're looking at the areas in the state of LA, where history has taken place and largely ignored and marking the areas that history took place in and the state has been very cooperative. Whenever we come up with an area and do the research the state is very cooperative with marking those places with markers.  We call those areas "sacred spaces" and we want to mark as many of those places as possible.

Visit our website to see what we're about and to see photographs of our events.

Ultimately, the final project we're trying to do is outreach related, and that's to go out visit schools with a team of historians, descendants, film people and bring history to the schools and talk to the kids about it - and actually have people related to those folks who we're talking about to present history to them.

Reconciliation wise - We feel like reconciliation, we had no named it, but we were the foundation for education, preservations, and reconciliation, but that wasn't actually part of our literature!  But it just automatically brought about the subject of reconciliation of such a long time of people looking at the names as enemies.  As friends we eventually decided to start this organization.  Reconciliation was almost automatic.

We joke sometimes that if Plessy and Ferguson can get together, then what's taking the whole world so long? (And that's a joke!)

You are so welcome. I am so happy that people see our relationship and our work as something that is positive. 

We  have had so much great support. We welcome suggestions as well. We are new to this, really, but we have so many ideas. 

Thank you!  Our intention is to bring people together.  Sadly, the case seperated the country for many years.  We had a golden opportunity right after the Civil War to create probably the best America that we ever had prior to those years of legal segregation that came about as a result of the seperate but equal doctine.

Is there anyway to see Keith Plessy's civil rights paintings that he talked about being in The Valenac Jones School?  He did 100 paintings, right?

Well, no, not yet, but that is a great idea! I can san them in. there is one image on our site if you go to the founders page and look at Keith's bio. 

103 to be exact.  We are in the process of trying to get into the school because it is boarded up.  It is a historical building.  Jones school played a major part played a huge part in African American schools in the 7th ward in New Orleans.

Our group was recruited to paint on the walls of the school - we recruiting neighboorhood people.  Got the kids to get together, come in, fed everyone (the school principal paid for the supplies), and as a result when we finished painting I was able to put my artwork on the walls.

Hopefully there will be a chance to see it when we bring it back to serve the community again. 

Do people often think that you should not like each other?

I think people are more impressed that we formed this foundation and decided to work together.  Less people come up and say things like that, but we have had those strange quesitons.

One lady asked me "Don't you hate Ferguson?"  I said no, in fact, Phoebe Ferguson is my friend!  We want to make in our time a new history about those two names.  We want to make the joining of those names the best thing that ever happened to them.

We consider our foundation our big child that we have adopted that we intend to raise and bring up right.  We try not to do things without the other and do everything together if we can.

Yes, often. It always surprises us. I mean, it has been a long time, and well, we weren't actually there. But at the same time, we understand it, too. I still feel the weight of the past and my link to it. But when they ask Keith why he isn't mad at me; he says, "because I wasn't raised that way." If you could meet Keith Plessy, you would know right away why I cannot be mad at him.

I'm 20-years-old and from Germany.  If I don't have to apologize for the Holocaust, then why does Mrs. Ferguson have to apologize for her great-great-grandfather's decision?

Well, of course, I do not have to apologize. Maybe because I am living in New Orleans, I still see that we are still struggling with separate but equal issues, and it is hard not to think about how that might have been different if my ancestor had chosen to not uphold the 1890 seperate car act. 

Well that's a matter of choice. If you don't want to apologize you don't have to.  If you feel an obligation in your heart you do it, if you don't feel that then you don't. It's a choice.  I think Phoebe felt an obligation in her heart that she had to and it was her choice.

You guys rock! What sort of projects and groups are you involved with that are working to rebuild New Orleans post-Katrina? Keith, is some of your artwork involved (or are you teaching Art to kids)?

Art wise - I haven't had time to work in my gifted field of art.  I'm hoping that I"ll begin to have some time for art, but for now my paintings have become live people and my canvass the world.

NOCA is one of our major partners, and the Crescent City Peace Alliance is active and we work with them.  Every Plessy Day we come together and create a community forumn where we discuss the spirit of the citizen's committee among other things.

There's never a last chapter, but I just want to say "hello" to those who will be following us and be working with us as we continue to grow.  I hope more people catch on to what we're doing and help us reach out, and help communities become self sustaining.  Thank you!

Thank you so much for taking the time to write in and talk to us. We will add a blog soon to the website so that you can write in any time. 

Happy Plessy Day!

In This Chat
Keith Plessy
Keith M. Plessy, is a longtime bellman at The Marriott hotel. He is a native of New Orleans and a graduate of John McDonogh High School and NOCCA - the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. When he was a student at Valena C. Jones Elementary School in the 1960s, Keith discovered he had a famous last name. A gifted artist, he was recruited to return to Valena C. Jones elementary school in 1979 to paint more than a hundred portraits of civil rights leaders on the interieror walls of the school, His paintings are still there today. Currently, as president of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, Keith works tirelessly reaching out to civil rights leaders, activists, and community members to let them know about the foundation and to seek their input and guidance in developing programs.
Phoebe Ferguson
Phoebe Ferguson is a New Orleans native. She worked as a successful photographer and filmmaker in New York City for 20 years, before returning home. Right after Katrina, she drove a truck full of supplies from Brooklyn, New York to the families in her film, who lost everything during the storm. Eight months later, she moved back to her roots to finish her documentary, Member of the Club, and start a new life as co-founder of The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. Ms. Ferguson's special interests are equity in education and developing programs that make history, not about someone else's past, but who you are now and what your legacy will be.
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