Decuir v Benson

The action took place during a summer journey in July 1872 on the Governor Allen  from New Orleans to Hermitage Landing in Pointe Coupee Parish. The widow Decuir was returning to the parish to continue settlement of her late husband’s estate who died in Pointe Coupee in 1867 while she was in France with the children.  On this trip she was bringing two attorneys from New Orleans – S.P. Snaer (Creole of Color and brother to state legislator Snaer) and E.K. Washington to represent her in affairs of the proceedings. 

At the levee in New Orleans, prior to its departure, Mr. Washington inquired for a passage for Mrs. Decuir on the Governor Allen. The ship's clerk emphatically responded to Mr. Washington  that she would have to use the area set aside for people of color. Unknowingly to Mr. Washington, the widow Decuir boarded the ship anyway. Mr. Snaer took a later boat, arriving the next day, as his plans changed at the last minute. Snaer wasn’t aware of the incident until  he met up later with Washington and Mrs. Decuir in Pointe Coupee.

Testimony from the ship’s clerk describes the incident in more detail. When asked about Mr. E. K. Washington’s inquiry for a passage for Mrs. Decuir, his reply was :      

 “That he (Washington) had a client that he wished to obtain a passage for the Hermitage Landing, and for fear she would be accommodated in the colored cabin, he wished to know before she came on board this boat if  I would give her a room in the ladies cabin or words to that effect. I informed him that if she was colored, she could only be accommodated in the colored cabin, that I could not give her a room in the Ladies Cabin.  I think Mr. Washington then went away.  I was busy and did not see him any more then.  After the boat backed out Mr. Washington came to me again and told me that Mme. Decuir was on the boat, and asked me to give her a room in the Ladies cabin.  I informed him I could only give her a room in the colored cabin as I was informed by other persons that she was colored and Mr. Washington did not deny it.  When she refused to go into the colored cabin, I ordered a cot to be put on the recess of the ladies cabin for her or in the chambermaids department just as she chose. Next morning Sunday the boat arrived at Hermitage Landing and plaintiff (Mme. Decuir) came forward to the office of the boat and paid her fair and for some freight she had on board, this was the first time I saw her that I know of.  I do not now recollect the amount of her fare, when the boat first came out we were charging six dollars to that Landing, we afterwards reduced it to five.  The white cabin to that landing was seven dollars.”

The allegations filed by Mrs. Decuir for basis of the suit:

“The plaintiff (Mrs. Decuir) alleges that in July, 1872, being in the city of New Orleans, and desiring to go to her plantations, in the parish of Pointe Coupee, she went on board the steamboat Governor Allen, a packet engaged in the business of common carrier or passengers, and plying between New Orleans and Vicksburg, and that she was refused a berth in the cabin and denied the right to take her meals at the table with the other passengers; and that she was forced to remain in a small compartment in the rear of the boat, without the common convenience granted to other passengers, solely on the ground that she is a colored person. She alleges that she is well educated, resided in Paris, France, several years, and that the treatment above mentioned is not only a gross infraction of her rights under the constitution of the United State and this State, but also an indignity to her personally, which shocked her feelings and caused her mental pain, shame and mortification. She prays for $25,000 in actual damages and $50,000 in exemplary damages. “

Recalling her social class and status at the time, it’s interesting to note her husband Antoine Decuir II was considered one of the wealthiest planters in the American South in 1860, as determined by his large slave holdings of over 200 slaves.  After the Civil War, many of her male family members became an integral part of the new Reconstruction government in Louisiana.  Mrs.  Decuir’s brother was Antoine Dubuclet, well respected Reconstruction State Treasurer; her cousin P. G. Deslondes was Secretary of State; and other family relatives were state representatives and senators, parish appointed and elected leaders, and, school board members.

 A landmark decision two decades prior to Plessy v. Ferguson, Mrs. Decuir’s case was decided in her favor, based on the new Louisiana 1868 legislation against discrimination of “color or race” and was awarded $1,000 damages in both the lower and the Louisiana Supreme Courts.  Benson’s widow continued her appeal to the US Supreme Court where the decisions were overturned paving the way for the “separate but equal” doctrine two decades later with Plessy v Ferguson.