Plessy, Prince, and Me:
Law, Religion, and the Quest for Racial Justice
M. Christian Green
1896. The year seemed to flash in glaring red lights from the text of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision as I was preparing my next lecture for “Law, Religion, and Social Change,” a course that I was teaching at Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 2005. The course was intended to introduce graduate students to key and controversial Supreme Court decisions. John Roberts had just been sworn in as Chief Justice, and the Court seemed primed for wide-ranging shifts in its jurisprudence, including on issues of racial justice.
But 1896. Why, throughout my studies in history, constitutional law, and religious and political ethics in high school, college, law school, and graduate school, had it never clicked before? In fact, I did know something about 1896. It was something related to the case of Homer Plessy, the black man who took a seat in the “wrong” car of the segregated train in violation of the 1890 Separate Car Act. And it was a date that was deeply and problematically embedded in my family’s history in Louisiana — a personal story that is in many ways emblematic of the nation’s racist past, and particularly the ways that our past remains entangled with law and religion.
A few years earlier, a cousin had published a genealogy chronicling the interconnected history of several Louisiana families, mostly in the area around the town of Franklin, in southern Louisiana. My connection was through the Foster family. My great-grandmother was a Foster — a branch of the family tree that also included Murphy J. Foster, the thirty-first governor of Louisiana and two-term U.S. Senator. (One hundred years after the Plessy decision, in 1996, Murphy J. Foster’s grandson, Murphy J. (“Mike”) Foster, Jr., would become the 53rd governor of Louisiana after a campaign that included the purchase of voting lists from Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.)
My epiphany around the possible connection between Governor Foster and the Plessy decision prompted an immediate search of perhaps the most common source of information possible in the internet era: the venerable Wikipedia. Quite frankly, I also wanted to see how much of the story of Foster and Plessy was general public knowledge. Did everybody know but me?
It was rough reading. When the Plessy decision was handed down in 1896, the first Governor Foster was entering his second term as governor. It would be a momentous term for racial injustice in the state with the drafting of a new Louisiana Constitution in 1898. The Wikipedia biography of Foster stated the facts squarely in its opening section:
Foster supported the Louisiana Constitution of 1898, which effectively disenfranchised the black majority, who were mostly Republicans. This led to Louisiana becoming a one-party Democratic state for several generations and excluding African Americans from the political system. Louisiana followed Mississippi (1890) and other southern states in adopting a new constitution with devices to disenfranchise blacks, then a majority in the state, chiefly by making voter registration more difficult. This situation of discriminatory political exclusion was not corrected until after enforcement of constitutional rights by the federal government under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
For someone who registered to vote promptly upon turning eighteen and who continues to work for voting rights today, this was unwelcome information.
As my eyes scanned the problematic page further, I was drawn down the rabbit hole of my ancestor’s racist legacy. It turned out that Foster was raised on a sugar plantation, where his father owned fifty enslaved people. He attended universities in Virginia and Tennessee before coming back to Louisiana to study law at Tulane University, and he was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1871. His family became stalwart members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the town of Franklin. (My grandmother received the bulletin from that church until her death and displayed it prominently on her coffee table for all visitors to see.) Foster then served as a state senator from 1880 to 1892, where he helped draft the 1898 Louisiana Constitution, which he would later help institute as the state’s highest law.
Foster’s ability to preside over the 1898 constitution was predicated, importantly, on his highly questionable re-election in the Louisiana gubernatorial elections of 1896. Yes, the annus horribilis was cropping up yet again. “In 1896, Foster directed state troopers to forcefully overthrow Louisiana’s last enclave of Republican and African-American office holders in St. John the Baptist Parish.” The general elections of 1896 were said to have “suffered heavily from fraud which benefited Foster, and widespread violence to suppress black Republican voting,” such that “any clear accounting of the election results is probably not possible.” All in all, 1896 was a devastating year for racial injustice in Louisiana — much of it carried out by my own ancestor.
The new Louisiana Constitution of 1898 was intended to fix the supposed problems of 1896, mostly by disenfranchising black citizens, Republicans, and others who had voted against Foster’s re-election. (Perhaps relatedly, Foster is also reported to have prevented co-education of women at Louisiana State University in 1894.) In summing up Foster’s legacy, the Dictionary of Louisiana Biography states: “Foster’s contributions as a state leader came as the result of his struggle to restore white supremacy in Louisiana, which culminated in the constitutional convention of 1898 that practically disfranchised Negroes.” As Wikipedia correctly chronicles, “After Foster’s reelection in 1896, Louisiana general elections were non-competitive; the only competition took place in Democratic primaries. Voter rolls were sharply reduced by the new initiatives, and blacks and other groups were excluded from the political system. The white-controlled legislature imposed racial segregation and Jim Crow.”
This was quite a lot of information about a racist relative to take in as I was preparing a lecture on Plessy. But it got worse. Murphy J. Foster was not the only family member with a questionable relationship to racial justice. I also learned that his father, Thomas Foster, was a prominent member of the Louisiana-founded Knights of the White Camellia. These “knights” were racial terrorists, who terrorized the state’s black population during the summer and fall of 1868. The White Camellias were notably very “privileged” in today’s jargon. There was a Wikipedia article for them, too. A further source specifies:
Though similar in some respects to, and frequently confused by the public with, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Camellias denied any connection whatsoever with that order. Their activities were confined almost solely to the southern parts of the Southern states, a region farther south in general from that occupied by the Klan. The White Camellias operated with less publicity but with perhaps even more effectiveness than did the Klansmen, although they did not employ such violent methods. They are thought to have been even more numerous than the Klansmen, and their secrets better kept. They were typically better organized than the Klan, and their membership, which was generally from a higher social stratum, included newspaper editors, physicians, lawyers, law-enforcement officials, public figures, and even a few former officers of the Union army living in the region. Many of the members freely admitted their membership, and officers sometimes identified themselves as members before congressional or legislative committees and detailed their organization and some of their activities. Though some renegade members committed atrocities, many others left the order because of its lack of militancy.
The Foster branch of my family tree, it seems, was thoroughly infested with the rot of American racism — and in some very elitist and malignant forms.
I went even deeper down the rabbit hole a decade later. In 2015, ten years after my Harvard epiphany, religion historian Peter Manseau published an opinion essay in the New York Times at the height of a political panic over the alleged invasion of the United States by Islamic sharia law. Manseau noted that, in colonial Georgia, “Muslims on a secluded plantation are known to have lived under the guidance of a religious leader who wrote a manuscript on Islamic law so that traditional knowledge might survive.” Manseau’s piece triggered another memory in connection with my family’s genealogy. Hadn’t the cousin who researched our family tree said something about one of our ancestors owning a prince?
Indeed, it turned out that Murphy J. Foster’s grandfather, Thomas Foster, had owned Abdul Rahman Ibrahima ibn Sori — a prince from the Fouta Djallon region of present-day Guinea who had been captured in battle and sold into slavery. Abdul Rahman was born in 1762 in the fabled city of Timbuktu in present-day Mali and returned there as a young man to study in the famed madrassas of Djenné and Timbuktu, where he learned Arabic, among other languages.
Apparently, Thomas Foster was never quite convinced of the royal provenance of the man he had enslaved in 1790, not even when a Dr. John Coates Cox encountered Abdul Rahman at a market near Foster’s Natchez, Mississippi plantation and recognized him as the son of an African king who had once taken Cox in when he was lost in Africa and nursed him back to health from an injury. Since Abdul Rahman’s mother was Moorish, Abdul Rahman was able to get a U.S. Senator to intervene with the U.S. Consulate in Morocco. Since the King of Morocco had diplomatic relations with the United States, Abdul Rahman was able to petition Secretary of State Henry Clay and President John Quincy Adams for his freedom in 1828 before returning to Africa via Liberia in 1829.
While Abdul Rahman had adopted his master’s Christian faith on the plantation, he is said to have converted back to Islam as soon as he saw Africa on the ocean horizon on the return voyage. Manseau writes, “The best known Muslim to pass through the port at New Orleans was Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a prince in his homeland whose plight drew wide attention. As one newspaper account noted, he had read the Bible and admired its precepts, but added, ‘His principal objections are that Christians do not follow them.’” It would take a few more years to figure out that Abdul Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori was the man that Thomas Foster gave the slave name “Prince.” Prince’s story has been the subject of a book and a documentary film and related scholarly symposia.
So, what does this family story have to do with law, religion, and racial justice? First, law and religion are intertwined in the personal biography of Murphy J. Foster, a lawyer and a churchgoer who also happened to be an architect of the white supremacist disenfranchisement of African Americans in Louisiana. America’s racist past continues to be felt today, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to decide a case on racist, unjust redistricting maps in Alabama and Louisiana. Second, there is the legacy of slavery and racial terrorist violence embodied in the Thomas Fosters. These are matters that groups across Louisiana and the south more broadly (including the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative and its Legacy Museum) have explored in order to tell the true story of racial terror in America. Third, law and religion are intertwined in the person of Abdul Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, who brought knowledge of Islamic law and theology into his experience of slavery in ways that allowed him to survive the experience in exile and may also have been part of his quest for justice and return to Africa. A final angle is the ongoing struggle within Christian churches to pursue projects of racial reconciliation within their churches and within the wider world. This is something that religious organizations, particularly Christian churches and institutions, would do well to explore.
As I was making my own initial inquiries into my Foster family legacy I met Katrina Browne, a scholar and documentarian at then Cambridge-located Episcopal Divinity School who was examining her own Rhode Island family’s participation in the slave trade — a participation that was also enacted by her forebears in high positions in government and the Episcopal Church. Browne’s work produced the documentary film “Traces of the Trade.” This film led to the Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground program, which is now being taken up by Episcopal churches in the U.S. in Becoming Beloved Community circles for congregational study. When I returned from Harvard to Emory in 2007, I also had the opportunity to participate in Emory University’s Transforming Community Project, which examined the university’s connections to enslavement in its origins. In 2016, my undergraduate alma mater, Georgetown University, began to examine and atone for its connections to slavery.
Not every person or every institution is prepared to undertake such self-examination readily. As proof, see the debates over “Critical Race Theory” that are roiling states like Louisiana today. But it is an example of how individuals and institutions — and structures of law and religion — can begin to confront these painful and problematic legacies of complicity with race and injustice. The State of Louisiana has recently taken such a step. On January 5, 2022, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a posthumous pardon of Homer Plessy for taking a seat in the “wrong” car of the train. In his remarks at the pardon ceremony, attended by descendant of Homer Plessy and of Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, Governor Edwards observed:
The first six decades of the 21st century should have been filled with infinitely more promise and progress in race relations, and they would have been, had slavery and segregation given way to equality and freedom as a plain reading of the 13th and 14th Amendments required. Instead, the 1896 Plessy decision ordained segregation for the explicit purpose of declaring and perpetuating white supremacy, as immoral and factually erroneous as that was —and is. The fictitious notion of “separate but equal” remained with us until the United States Supreme Court revisited the issue in 1954 in the context of public education and implicitly overruled Plessy. Mr. Plessy’s conviction should never have happened. But, there is no expiration on justice. No matter is ever settled until it is settled right. It is with great joy that today I pardon Homer Plessy and settle this matter. We still have a long way to go when it comes to equality and justice, but this pardon is certainly a step in the right direction.
It is a good thing when individuals and institutions take those steps when the opportunity strikes, but this can only happen when eyes are open to the truth. As the hymn goes, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” ♦
M. Christian Green is a senior editor and senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Her areas of scholarly expertise are law, religion, human rights, and global ethics.
Green, M. Christian. “Plessy, Prince, and Me: Law, Religion, and the Quest for Racial Justice.” Canopy Forum, February 1, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/02/01/plessy-prince-and-me-law-religion-and-the-quest-for-racial-justice/