A New York Times Editors' Choice
Winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Award
Longlisted for the Cundill History Prize
“Absorbing.… Segregation is not one story but many. Luxenberg has written his with energy, elegance and a heart aching for a world without it.” —James Goodman, The New York Times Book Review
Separate is a myth-shattering narrative of one of the most consequential Supreme Court cases of the nineteenth century, Plessy v. Ferguson. The 1896 ruling embraced racial segregation, and its reverberations are still felt today. Drawing on letters, diaries, and archival collections, Steve Luxenberg reveals the origins of racial separation and its pernicious grip on American life. He tells the story through the lives of the people caught up in the case: Louis Martinet, who led the resisters from the mixed-race community of French New Orleans; Albion Tourgée, 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 sanctioned separation; Justice John Harlan, the Southerner from a slaveholding family whose singular dissent cemented his reputation as a steadfast voice for justice. Sweeping, swiftly paced, and richly detailed, Separate is an urgently needed exploration of our nation’s most devastating divide.
The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the legality of "separate but equal" facilities for white and black Americans, is widely viewed as the beginning of the jim crow era in the South, but, as journalist Luxenberg \nconvincingly argues, it was the result of decades of debate about race relations. The case of Homer Plessy, a New Orleanian "fair-skinned enough to cause confusion" about which car he should occupy on the state's segregated trains, was actually a test case engineered by the city's community of mixed-racial-heritage people, who saw their prestige and power slipping away as the nation moved toward a less nuanced conception of race. In lucid prose, Luxenberg lays out the history of racialized segregation in the North and South of the United States and offers vivid portraits of main actors in this civil rights struggle, from ex-slave abolitionist Frederick Douglass to judge John Marshall Harlan (raised in Kentucky, but a staunch supporter of the Union during the Civil War) and lawyer Albion Tourgee, whose Civil War military service awakened him to the "full awfulness" of slavery. Some readers may find this exhaustively researched account excessively wordy and too detailed, but Luxenberg provides a useful take on one of the Supreme Court's most influential decisions.