At the top edge of the Bywater, where Royal Street crosses the railroad tracks, a plaque marks a moment that changed our nation’s history. 

A shoemaker named Homer Plessy was arrested here in 1892 for sitting in a passenger railcar designated for “whites.” 

The arrest was planned; Plessy’s friends, the Citizens Committee, called ahead to alert officials. They wanted to challenge the Separate Railcar Act in Louisiana.

Instead, Plessy’s arrest marked the beginning of Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. 

That one historic moment changed our nation, for generations.

Our ancestors, Homer Plessy and Judge John H. Ferguson – who declined to find the Separate Railcar Act unconstitutional – changed the entire nation’s political, social, and economic trajectory for generations.

Though we are direct descendants of the case’s opposing parties, we now work together to bring attention to the continuing injustices spawned by the 1896 decision. 

In 2009, we established the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation (now the Plessy and Ferguson Initiative, or PFI), a nonprofit organization focused on 19th and 20th-century civil-rights history, transitional justice, and the memory of African American resistance and achievement in New Orleans. 

One of our first endeavors, our Historic Marker Project, led to the plaque that now stands on the re-named Homer Plessy Way, at the site of Plessy’s arrest. Over the last 14 years, PFI has erected five historical markers across the city. 

In July, we will be installing a sixth, documenting the 1866 Mechanics Institute Massacre downtown, a reassertion of white power that dashed hopes during the early days of Reconstruction, a time full of promise, meant to fundamentally reorganize the social and political fabric of the United States. 

That promise wasn’t realized and Reconstruction’s place in history was largely forgotten. That makes our  work — erecting plaques, memorializing history in public — even more crucial. But we’ve learned that it’s only one piece of the racial healing that New Orleans needs. 

Here and across the country, anti-Black violence and hate crimes continue to cast a long shadow, reflecting past harms and a legacy of racial segregation. The Mechanics Institute slaughter is a grim reminder of the deep-seated prejudice embedded in the region’s culture. 

Today, New Orleans is ranked the second-most politically polarized urban area in the nation — in our area, Republicans and Democrats don’t typically live close to each other. The struggle continues, to make good on the promise of Reconstruction. And so must our efforts.

To understand our current moment in history, PFI launched “Reconstructing Reconstruction,” in partnership with Common Ground USA, an initiative of the global peacebuilding organization Search for Common Ground.

We are looking back to Reconstruction to bring communities together, convening discussions between community leaders, to identify and confront the deeply entrenched and unaddressed racial injustices that continue to permeate our culturally rich city. 

Over the past two years, we have worked with Common Ground USA to map our city in a new way, creating avenues for training and historical memorialization, and bringing together a community of communities – a coalition of 13 organizations — all of whom will be empowered to lead reconciliation efforts on their own. In powerful “Reconstructing Reconstruction” listening sessions, we’ve talked with individuals and groups in varied local industries – educators, lawyers, historians, community, and faith leaders – to identify the problems they face in working toward equity, and to work toward possible solutions. These problems include mistrust among different groups, miseducation about both historical and current events, and lack of access to adequate resources. 

Using proven peace-building methodologies and training, we are equipping these leaders with the resources needed to effectively teach others to understand how Reconstruction Era policies affect us today, and how all of New Orleans can heal from those effects.

The historic plaques are a hallmark of our work. They root our work in the moments, places, and people that are critical to retaining and sharing necessary histories of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Reconstruction Era, and civil-rights cases throughout Louisiana and the United States. 

We mark these storied locations and then build on them, by raising awareness of the history that shaped our present. We inspire people to learn from each other, and then to look inside themselves to create positive change on tough issues. 

We are using our families’ names to contribute, in New Orleans, to the racial reckoning in which our country is currently engaged. We have been humbled by the response. 

The history behind our names propels us forward, serving as a lasting reminder that there are always ways for people to come together, to right the wrongs of history.