From Property to Plessy
This chapter examines Josephine Decuir, the first plaintiff in a constitutional case on racial discrimination in public transit to appear before the U.S Supreme Court. It demonstrates that in her lawsuit she drew on a rich tradition of black legal advocacy, lessons she learned from her family and from black litigants throughout the Natchez district. It argues that black litigants’ pre-emancipation experience with private law was important, for it was preparation for the long battle ahead for full citizenship and equality, a battle that would continue to be (and continues to be) fought over in the nation’s courts and beyond. Civil litigation—seemingly mundane lawsuits over property disputes, for divorce, or to recover unpaid loans—is also a significant component of the civil rights and racial justice struggle. For these lawsuits involve claims about who counts, whose voices are worth hearing, and who can and should be included. They are claims on the state and claims to accountability and recognition. They are claims about the protection of human dignity.
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