Steve Luxenberg – Separate

A myth-shattering narrative of how a nation embraced “separation” and its pernicious consequences.

Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case synonymous with “separate but equal”, created remarkably little stir when the justices announced their near-unanimous decision on May 18, 1896. Yet it is one of the most compelling and dramatic stories of the 19th century, whose outcome embraced and protected segregation, and whose reverberations are still felt into the 21st. Separate spans a striking range of characters and landscapes, bound together by the defining issue of their time and ours – race and equality. Wending its way through a half-century of American history, the narrative begins at the dawn of the railroad age, in the North, home to the nation’s first separate railroad car, then moves briskly through slavery and the Civil War to Reconstruction and its aftermath, as separation took root in nearly every aspect of American life.

Award-winning author Steve Luxenberg draws from letters, diaries, and archival collections to tell the story of Plessy v. Ferguson through the eyes of the people caught up in the case. Separate depicts indelible figures, such as the resisters from the mixed-race community of French New Orleans, led by Louis Martinet, a lawyer and crusading newspaper editor; Homer Plessy’s lawyer, Albion Tourgee, a best-selling author and the country’s best-known white advocate for civil rights; Justice Henry Billings Brown, from antislavery New England, whose majority ruling endorsed separation; and Justice John Harlan, the Southerner from a slaveholding family whose singular dissent cemented his reputation as a steadfast voice for justice.

Author: Steve Luxenberg
Narrator: Donald Corren
Duration: 19 hours 39 minutes
Released: 19 Dec 2002
Publisher: Recorded Books
Language: English

User Review:

no strapping

Northern segregationists. Southern slaveholders who took up arms for the North. Carpetbaggers both venal and altruistic. Freed slaves who themselves owned slaves. And the ultimate paradox: Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that rationalized separate but equal, being classified as white in the 1920 census.

This book is more than just the story of Plessy v. Ferguson. Its an anecdotal collage of the manifold aspects of race relations in the U.S. from slavery to the Civil War to the Supreme Court. From Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington. From Charles Sumner to Jim Crow.

Too often in this country, the struggle for civil rights is told in terms of the 1860s and the 1960s. The period in between, the Jim Crow period during which segregation policies reasserted white dominance, is seldom covered in detail, is poorly understood, is hooded and cloaked, as it were, in secrecy and subversion.

Luxenberg does a good job making this era accessible by telling it from the perspectives of 4 main Plessy v Ferguson protagonists; H. B. Brown, the northern segregationist judge who wrote the majority opinion, John Marshal Harlan, the southern justice whose solitary and prescient dissent predicted many of the woes that resulted from the decision, Albion Tourgee, the carpetbagger who pleaded Plessys case before the Supreme Court, and the gens de couleur libres, New Orleans Free People of Color, the people who brought the case and who were so cruelly betrayed by the decision. In this book, we relive Reconstruction, with all of its aspirations and contradictions and ultimate failures, through the experiences and writings of these very real people. Luxenberg has done us the overdue and important service of humanizing an adumbrated period of our past.

Luxenbergs subject is Plessy v Ferguson, and except for a brief epilogue, he ends the book with the Supreme Court decision. There is still room for a similar treatment of the dismal history that followed, when Judge Harlans forebodings were fully realized.

The writing contains a few stylistic irritants but they are minor. I recommend this book as much for the subject it illuminates as for the writing style.