Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


   Separate (The Story of Plessy V. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation)

By Steve Luxenberg

         Narrated by: Donald Corren

Steve Luxenberg (Author, associate editor The Washington Post.)

“Separate” is a disheartening history of American social dysfunction. It is largely a biographic picture of two Americans, John Harlan and Albion Tourgée. Both play a pivotal role in the transition of American slavery to American segregation. Both are against the iniquity of segregation but fail as civil war veterans and public servants to eradicate America’s belief in a “separate but equal” doctrine.

Their social positions are quite different in that Harlan is from a relatively wealthy slave holding Kentucky family while Tourgée is from a small Ohio farming family.  Both become Republicans that serve in the union army during the civil war. Harlan’s family is politically connected in Kentucky while Tourgée has no interest in politics until he goes to college. Both men become lawyers, but Tourgée is a much less successful lawyer while becoming a noted writer. In contrast John Harlan gains reputation as an astute lawyer who evolves into a well-known dissenter on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Harlan serves as an officer in the Union army and recruits a Kentucky militia that fights for the union.  Interestingly, though Harlan becomes a Republican, he is opposed to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Tourgée initially enters the Union army as a volunteer in New York.

Tourgée is seriously wounded in the First Battle of Bull Run in an accident. After recovery, he reenlists as an officer in the 105th Ohio Volunteer infantry and is wounded again, captured, and imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia. He is freed in a prisoner exchange and rejoins the Union army, fights in two more battles, and resigns his commission in 1863.

Tourgée gains a reputation as a staunch defender of equal rights for what then were classified as colored Americans.

To this listener, the contrast between Harlan and Tourgée are the most interesting part of Luxenberg’s history. Harlan changes his view of slavery and segregation during his life. Tourgée never changes.

Harlan grows to recognize the inherent inequality of segregation. In Harlan’s changed beliefs, he becomes well regarded by famous black orators like Frederick Douglas.

Tourgée becomes a noted and self-proclaimed “carpet bagger” from the north. He is vilified throughout the south for his beliefs and writing about equality of all races. Tourgée settles in North Carolina with his wife, and they take in a young black girl who is raised and educated at the expense of the Tourgée’s.

An interesting note by the author that gives a listener an inkling of Tourgée’s failure as a lawyer is the defense used for a soldier who is accused of stealing money from the government. Tourgée loses the case. However, the soldier is later exonerated by testimony and affirmations from fellow soldiers. This is early in Tourgée’s career as a lawyer, but it presages his loss of the important Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that reaffirms “separate but equal” precedent. Tourgée’s legal augments get lost in a forest of trees with too many ideas that do not hold the attention of his judges.

The decision by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson is 7 to 1 which affirms the principle of separate as equal. The lone dissenter is John Marshall Harlan.

Harlan’s dissent presages today’s consequence of the mistaken belief that separate can be equal. The nature of humankind makes separate but equal impossible.

The only enforced legal truth of separate is not equal is the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, but there are many who continue to disagree.

It has been social pressure, not legal standing, that has changed the lie of “separate but equal” in America. Plessy v. Ferguson has never been overturned except for education. Of course, the problem now is that education is not being adequately provided for reasons too numerous to detail. That problem is not the subject of Luxenberg’s history.

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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