The group selected Plessy, a descendant of a prominent family of gens de coleur libres (free people of color) that inhabited the downtown French-speaking neighborhoods, because his light complexion allowed him to pass for white -- white enough to purchase a ticket without detection, but not white enough to avoid confrontation by the conductor, J.J. Dowling.
"Are you a colored man?" Dowling asked.
Plessy acknowledged that he was, but refused to move when the conductor commanded he leave and board a separate car. The conductor summoned a detective, Christopher C. Cain, secretly hired by the Comit de Citoynes to perform the arrest. An account published two days later in the New Orleans Daily Picayune stated "a Negro named Plessy" was arrested because he "persisted in riding with the white people."
The civil rights movement was born.
This history behind Plessy, the Comit de Citoyens and the "separate but equal" Supreme Court ruling is recounted in detail by author Keith Weldon Medley in his 2003 book, We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. Yet despite the historical importance of the event, no plaque, marker or monument has ever stood in the empty grass lot at the intersection of Press and Royal streets.
A coalition of local activists in the Crescent City Peace Alliance and students from Douglass High School seeks to change that. The group wants to establish an ambitious, educational park paying tribute to Plessy in the greater context of the local civil rights struggle. But the group's plan has languished for years and has struggled for financing -- and this year, the Virginia-based Norfolk Southern railroad company terminated its $100-per-year lease with the Crescent City Peace Alliance (CCPA). Norfolk Southern is now in negotiations to sell the land to prominent local attorney John Cummings.
A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern says that CCPA failed to make any payments during the four years the railroad leased the land. Railroad officials also say the group failed to clean, mow or maintain the site, and, furthermore, the lease had no set termination date. Earlier this year, the railroad gave 90 days notice of termination, and from there began to negotiate with Cummings. The railroad declined to discuss any details of its dealings with Cummings.
CCPA executive director Reggie Lawson doesn't dispute the fact that the group hasn't made the nominal payments and acknowledges that the grass was only cut for special events at the site. But he denies that those are the real reasons for the termination. "We're not getting evicted for non-payment of rent, we're getting evicted because of (Norfolk Southern's) greed," he says.
Lawson says he's been told by city officials there is nothing they can do to help with his idea for the land "unless you own the dirt." Nevertheless, Lawson and others have solicited help from public officials such as U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, among others. Lawson describes his meeting with a Landrieu representative as "promising" and holds a letter from Blanco that is effusive in praise for the plan set forth by Douglass and CCPA. "I welcome this new opportunity to endorse your plans to establish a New Orleans Civil Rights Memorial in Plessy Park," Blanco wrote in a letter dated June 23. "Above all I am inspired and supportive of the students and community stakeholders who have led this noteworthy effort."
Cummings declines to comment in detail on his plans for the property because he does not yet own the land. Lawson and others allege that Cummings plans to erect condos and perhaps a cafe on the site located in Faubourg Marigny near Bywater. Cummings does say that he plans to reserve the half-block bordering the Press and Royal intersection as a memorial to Plessy and possibly turn it over to the state for maintenance. "The state arrested him, so the state can maintain it," Cummings says, speaking by phone from Italy, where he was vacationing.
"This is not a fight," he says of the disputed property and park. "We're both well-meaning and trying to do the same thing."
For his part, author Weldon says it shouldn't be surprising that controversy has erupted over the park. "It's New Orleans," Weldon says. "Everything, especially if it deals with race, is contentious." (Most CCPA members and all Douglass students involved are African Americans; Cummings is white.)
Councilwoman Clarkson says she is "concerned" about Cummings' move to purchase the land. "I've always thought that spot should be a public park," Clarkson says. "We've got to make a presentation on what we want and have the railroad donate the land to the city or the state."
Clarkson says she plans to "stay very involved" in the site's future development. "It's important to the whole community," she says.
"History is still happening," says artist John T. Scott. "It's not something that's dead."
Lawson and the group recruited Scott to develop an artistic concept for the park's design and theme. Scott's metalwork has appeared in prominent public spaces in cities such as Philadelphia and Atlanta. Locally, Spirit House, a work he created to reflect local African-American culture and history, sits in Gentilly on the DeSaix Avenue neutral ground.
Scott's design for the proposed New Orleans Civil Rights Memorial makes use of the symbolism of Plessy's train ride. A railroad track would encircle the area, with stops along the track commemorating a different event in the local African-American struggle for equality.
"It's all about history," Scott says of his design. "I wanted to develop history as a seamless language, like poetry. The challenge was to incorporate history in the art and to inform people. ... From there, the whole idea is about the journey. How did we get here? What's the significance?"
Although Scott voices frustration with the lack of progress the group has made in establishing a firm plan for the park -- "Right now, we don't even know if this park is going to happen," he complains -- he says that working with the students has been his greatest reward in the project. "They're really bright," Scott says of the Douglass students.
The feeling is mutual. "He's an amazing fellow," says Christopher Burton, a 2005 Douglass graduate attending Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia this fall.
Burton and the other students have worked under the direction of performance artist Kathy Randels and other teachers to create a dramatic work that brings to life various chapters in local history, connecting the dots from the local 1811 slave revolt to tumultuous school integration battles in the 1950s and '60s to present-day issues, including the squabble over who should have the right to develop a memorial to Plessy.
During a June community meeting at St. Paul Lutheran Church on Burgundy Street, the Douglass students showcased a performance for the park. The well-choreographed teens marched in lock-step, feet pounding the asphalt in unison as Burton shouted, "All aboard!" The audience -- whites separated from blacks to further illustrate the history -- was led to various points on the time-line. Eventually, similar performances might take place at the park itself.
Not all the students were from Douglass --ÊChalmette High School student Gus Rent is among the white teens who are participating in the project. "We wanted to bring in the kids from St. Bernard -- whose parents and grandparents left (the Ninth Ward) during white flight -- to show these kids who have little or no opportunity for interaction that theirs is a shared story," says Douglass faculty member Jim Randels (Kathy's brother).
At the meeting, Earlnika Royal, a sophomore at Douglass, also showcased her work. Royal created a multi-media computer program titled "Rebels vs. Bobcats," detailing the conversion of her neighborhood high school from an all-white institution named for Gov. Francis T. Nicholls, a slave-owning Confederate general, to an all-black school named for former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Royal's report moved through stark images from the school's integration days, when white students waved Confederate banners in the cafeteria and hung a black student in effigy on the campus grounds. It also deals with the plight of black-on-black violence, placing the current problem into the context of generations of oppression and poverty.
"I'm inspired," Royal says while sitting at the computer. "I didn't know any of this stuff before I worked on this project."
"What needs to happen for this park to become fully realized is nothing short of a total shift in how we view education and its role in the community," says Jim Randels. "These kids are inspired, they're learning. Having them take such an active role in the community like this is truly ground-breaking.
"New Orleans has fallen woefully behind in developing 21st century economies. And this park symbolizes this struggle: Are these kids going to have a spot on the train or not?"Jim Randels admits that by inviting the Douglass students and community to become partners in the push to create Plessy Park, Lawson and the CCPA may have slowed the park's overall progress. But their option is far better than the alternative, he says.
"It'd be a shame to have a monument erected and it have no real connection to the community," Randels says.
Last month, Lawson, Cummings and others met at Caf Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street. Lawson said the group presented Cummings with the published anthology The Long Ride: A Collection of Student Writings for the New Orleans Civil Rights Park. Lawson says he hopes the book will inspire Cummings --Êbut says he believes Cummings "fails to see the big picture."
Cummings faces his own obstacles. His son, Sean, a developer, was given an advisory opinion by the state Board of Ethics that his holdings in Bywater conflicted with his role as executive director of the city-sponsored New Orleans Building Corp., which is developing the downtown riverfront. Faubourg Marigny and Bywater are among those areas that would see the biggest changes from proposed riverfront developments.
Lawson says he's taking the advice of his attorney and proceeding as if the lease is still valid. He also points to Sean Cummings' influence in the Nagin administration as an unfair advantage in the fight to control the park.
John Cummings maintains that his plans are in the spirit of honoring Plessy. "Anybody that knows me knows I'm not a racist," he says, pointing to his renovation of the Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, which includes plans for a museum honoring American slaves. Cummings also found a historic train depot in St. John that he plans to place in his version of Plessy Park to commemorate the event.
The students, however, seem to be bracing for a fight. "We're going to build that park," says Douglass senior Maria Hernandez. "[Cummings] may have the money, but we have the spirit."