Black Citizenship

Black American Citizenship as Defined by the Courts, From Plessy to Ferguson 

Manasseh Konadu, December 2018

When reading the United States Constitution, arguably one of the best written governing documents in history it is mindboggling that originally the founding fathers never thought to clearly identify who and what a citizen is. The omission of this very important detail has led to the confusion of the nation time and time again. Citizenship for African Americans throughout the United States history has always been a long drawn out battle that at times did not look too optimistic. The continued belief of white racial superiority was an ideal that ran rampant through the minds of many white Americans and still does today. Many of these white Americans denied the humanity of African Americans questioning if they were deserving of the perks that came with finally being recognized as human and ultimately a citizen of the United States. Post the Civil war and Emancipation the Constitution was Amended to add two of the most, at that time radical, Amendments. The first being the Thirteenth Amendment which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. The second of those Amendments was the Fourteenth Amendment which granted citizenship to all persons born on American soil which included all people who had recently been emancipated. Times started to look up and it seemed in post-Civil War America, there was an upbeat feeling of equality due to the new legislation. This held to have a layer of truth until the was a failed reconstruction of the southern state which gave headway for the idea of segregation repeats its ugly head into society. Segregation was spread through various medians such as separate public transportation, schooling and public goods. These segregation laws created separation between African Americans and white Americans and was based on a system of white privilege and suppression. Did the legalized Segregation nullify the 14th Amendment?

Merriam-Webster defines equality as “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” Merriam-Webster also defines segregation as “the separation for special treatment or observation of individuals or items from a larger group.” The Fourteenth Amendment’s largest purpose was to clear up the disparities of race in American society. This Amendment states “All person born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are a citizen of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” [1] The direct words of the constitution were constructed to be aimed at ensuring citizenship in both the nation and the state in which they lived. The constitution also includes that all people who were born on United States soil, even the people who were previously enslaved, and with this new citizenship would be granted all the rights and immunities of any citizen of the United States. The amendment also states that for any state to deprive them of these laws with due process would be unconstitutional. To have this equal protection in the law and still have segregation is almost oxymoronic as this system of segregation lasted about 50 to 60 years after the ratification. This could be to the failed reincorporation of African Americans back into society but regardless that is not an excuse for not fully laying out what it means to be an American citizen in the original construction of the document.

Michael Honey in an article published in the Johns Hopkins University Press says that “In the South, African Americans after emancipation struggled for generations to make the promise of freedom real.”[2] In the years following Reconstruction and beyond, African Americans with the energy to gain their equal rights granted to them by law, were halted with by Southern whites with new ways that would disparage black citizenship and create new forms of racial submission. At every turn in the southern states, where African Americans were heavily populated, segregation reigned supreme. Segregation legally began with the laws of separating education. All citizens paid taxes that were equal but funding for black schools was not proportional to schools that white American children attended. Laws of segregation that mandated separate (and inferior) facilities for black American started to take over all aspects of public life. How is it that this philosophy of segregation reigned supreme especially as a direct contradiction of the 14th amendment?

The mid to late 19th century upheld this philosophy of southern segregation that directly affected southern black citizenship. The first to set the stage for this new philosophy was the Slaughter- House Cases, 83 US 36 (1873) which undercut the new Amendments to the constitution, setting a precedent that “ Any rights guaranteed by the Privileges or Immunities Clause were limited to areas controlled by the federal government.”[3] Shortly after this new anti-equality ideology was affirmed with the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 decided on May 18, 1896. 1/8th African American Homer Plessy of Louisiana tried to sit on an all-white railroad car after identifying his blackness when asked by the conductor. After refusing to get off he was jailed because he had broken the segregation laws of the state. Following this, he sued the state for violating his fourteenth amendment. The court held that “the 14th Amendment intended to establish absolute equality for the races before the law but held that separate treatment did not imply the inferiority of African Americans…. In short, segregation did not in itself constitute unlawful discrimination” [4] John Marshall Harlan the lone dissenting opinion argued that the Separate Car Act argued in the Plessey v. Ferguson case was understood to assume the inferiority of African Americans which in turn left them at a position of servitude which violated the thirteen Amendment. Harlan also argued that the act affected the personal liberty and freedom of both African Americans as well as white and thus conflicted with the principle of legal equality of the fourteenth Amendment. This case identified the messiness of citizenship for black Americans promised in the constitution by the fourteenth Amendment. This case aided by its preceding case, the Slaughter-House Cases, abridged and clouded the constitutional meaning of being a black American for over fifty years until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was brought before the court.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954) was a combination of cases that came from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. “In all these cases Negro children through legal representatives were seeking to obtain admission to the public schools of their community on a desegregated bases but each instance, had all been denied “ [5] In the cases other than the one from the Delaware court a three-judge federal district court had denied relief to the plaintiffs on the doctrine announced by the Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. In this case, the plaintiffs were arguing that segregated public schools were not equal and violated the equal protection clause that was made applicable to all states by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court on May 17th, 1954 decided that “Separate but equal educational facilities for racial minorities is inherently unequal. Violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment….. The Court reasoned that the segregation of public education based on race instilled a sense of inferiority that had a hugely detrimental effect on the education and personal growth of African American Children.” [6] This landmark case really was the first to fully understand the effects of unfair treatment toward Black Americans. This one represented the first real legal case that equated black citizenship with white citizenship.

The clarification of African American Citizenship has been a long-winded battle that started years before Plessy v. Ferguson and reached its climax with Brown v. Board of Education. The fight to identify what Black citizenship, amongst the mess of segregation, is something in many ways we still are grappling with its ripple effects especially when looking at civility among Americans . It is crucial to note how important the courts are when it comes to identifying what it really means to be a citizen. In Plessy v. Ferguson, you could be addressed as a different citizen from the rest of the population even if in some ways you would be treated inappropriately also known as “separate but equal”. The court in 1896 set a definition of what it meant to be a black American but sadly set an unequal and unfair meaning of citizenship. Nonetheless the court did redeem itself in 1954 even though it took about fifty-six years to do so in Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark case helped to redefine what it meant to be a black citizen and help all Americans reach educational equality and ultimately all equality legally.

I add the word legally because at that time and today there is still a long way to go because it is not just a legal change that must be made but also a mental one. Even though there is still an uphill mental battle, that we as a society must fight in order to get true equality, when defining citizenship its proven that the courts have a big impact on our perception on who and what it means to be a citizen. Even though legal definitions may not change our mentality toward a people or an ideal it is a starting point. Keeping this in mind we must fight to keep the court’s balance and make sure that the holders of the gavel are of the most forward-thinking, compassionate and most thoughtful of all.


[1] 14th Amendment. Accessed October 20, 2018. .

[2] Honey, Michael. “Segregation.” In Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon Bronner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

[3] “Slaughter-House Cases.” Oyez. Accessed November 10, 2018. href=””>

[4] Plessy v. Ferguson. “Oyez. Accessed October 26, 2018. href=””>

[5]” Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1). “ Oyez. Accessed October 26, 2018. href=”” >

[6] Ibid., 9.

Further Reading

Britannica School, s.v. “Plessy v. Ferguson, “ Accessed October 23, 2018,

“Desegregation. “ In The hutchinson unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, edited by Helicon. Helicon, 2018

Honey, Michael. “Segregation.” In Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon Bronner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

Sarat, Austin. Race, Law and Culture: Reflection on Brown v. Board of Education. Oxford University Press, 1994. Accessed October 27, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

“Slaughter-House Cases.” Oyez. Accessed November 10, 2018.

Worcester State University Fall 2022