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Who was Daniel Desdunes? 

Blake Pontchartrain: The New Orleans N.O. It All

click to enlarge Daniel Desdunes tested the constitutionality of a Louisiana law that required railroad cars be segregated — four months before Home Plessy's challenge of the same law that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Photo courtesy Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library

Daniel Desdunes tested the constitutionality of a Louisiana law that required railroad cars be segregated — four months before Home Plessy's challenge of the same law that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hey Blake,

Your article about the support columns and murals on Claiborne Avenue (Sept. 1) made me go seek them out. I found a painting of Daniel Desdunes. Who was he?

Charlene Campbell

Dear Charlene,

  If you don't know the name of New Orleanian Daniel Desdunes, you may be more familiar with the names Homer Plessy and Judge John Ferguson. As you'll see, Desdunes played an equally important role in civil rights history.

  Born in 1873, Desdunes was a musician, educator and member of the Comite des Citoyens, or Citizens' Committee, which was formed in part by his father, Rodolphe. According to writer and historian Keith Medley, the committee planned to challenge the constitutionality of Louisiana's Separate Car Act of 1890, which required black and white passengers to ride in separate railroad cars.

  On Feb. 24, 1892, Desdunes boarded a white-only train car on Canal Street bound for Alabama. He was arrested and in court, according to The Daily Picayune, "declared his sole intention to be to test the constitutionality of the law."

  According to Medley, the Alabama trip was chosen to invoke the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution for the court challenge. However, a state Supreme Court ruling held that the Louisiana law did not apply to a passenger crossing state lines. The case was dropped and Judge John Ferguson ordered him to be released.

  Homer Plessy, a shoemaker, volunteered to be the next person to test the law. His historic New Orleans train encounter (on a railcar bound for Covington) happened on June 7, 1892, four months after Desdunes'. Plessy was arrested for violating the same act and his case (also before Judge Ferguson) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court issued its infamous "separate but equal" ruling in 1896. That ruling stood until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

  Desdunes left New Orleans to tour the country as a musician. He eventually settled in Omaha, where he gained acclaim as an early jazzman, bandleader and composer. He died in 1929.

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