On Friday NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, celebrates with music, guest speakers, a second line and more. The occasion? Plessy Day.
That name should bring to mind history class, and the landmark 1890s Supreme Court case Plessy versus Ferguson, in which the court upheld racial segregation and "separate but equal" as a legal standard.
It was 121 years ago, in 1892, that Homer Plessy — of one-eighth African-American ancestry — boarded a train car designated "whites only." At that time the South was passing segregation laws, says NOCCA Institute Community Development Director Jackson Knowles. She says Plessy’s action was part of a highly organized attempt to challenge those laws.
"That happened right here in New Orleans," Knowles says. "He boarded the train where the NOCCA campus is today, and was arrested two blocks later at Press Street and Royal Street."
Knowles says local recognition of the site has grown. After a lengthy campaign, the intersection of Plessy’s arrest got a state historical marker in 2009. Knowles says the school has worked with the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, a group created by descendants of the original plaintiff and defendant, to create educational tools. Knowles says the school has used its proximity to the site in its arts curriculum.
"We’ve learned a lot from our relationship to the site," she says. "When you’re training artists, the more they know about where they come from and who they are and what they want to say about the world, the better artists they are."
Plessy Day has become an annual event, incorporating guest speakers on civil rights, student performances, and tributes to local cultural figures.