Case Topics: "Separate but Equal," Equal Protection

"The object of the [14th] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either." —Justice Henry Billings Brown, speaking for the majority

In 1890, Louisiana passed a statute called the Separate Car Act declaring that all rail companies carrying passengers in Louisiana must provide separate but equal accommodations for white and non-white passengers. The penalty for sitting in the wrong compartment was a fine of $25, or 20 days in jail. A group of black citizens joined forces with the East Louisiana Railroad Company to fight the Act. In 1892, Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black, purchased a first-class ticket and sat in the white-designated railroad car. Plessy was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act and argued in court that the Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. After losing twice in the lower courts, Plessy took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the previous decisions that racial segregation is constitutional under the separate but equal doctrine.

About the materials

These materials were developed for students of various skill levels, and teachers should choose the level that works best for their students. Answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities can be found in the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas" tab under each case.

Background summary and questions to consider (by reading level)

Important vocabulary (by reading level)

Legal Concepts

Other useful background information

Activities*

The Case

After the Case

* See the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas" tab for access to answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities.


Teaching strategies used


Planning time and activities

If you have one day . . .

If you have two days . . .

If you have three days . . .

If you have four days . . .

  • Complete all the activities for the first, second, and third days. 
  • On the fourth day, depending on your students' level, complete Interpreting the Constitution (•••/••).
  • If Interpreting the Constitution is not grade-level appropriate, have students complete the Crisis in Little Rock activity.

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