Sunday, June 11, 2023

Q&A with Amy Nathan




Amy Nathan is the author of the book Together: An Inspiring Response to the "Separate-But-Equal" Supreme Court Decision That Divided America. The book, for teens and adults, is now available in a new second edition. Nathan's other books include Round and Round Together. She lives in the New York City area.


Q: Since Together’s original publication in 2021, there have been some important developments in the story--can you describe what happened?


A: The book Together, first published in February 2021, gives a compact account of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson and its lasting negative impact today, intertwining that history with the personal journeys of two descendants of the two principals in that court case: Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson.


These descendants created the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation 14 years ago to help people learn this history and motivate them to repair some of the damage that court decision caused.


However, about seven months after Together was published, Keith and Phoebe learned of a powerfully symbolic way to help deliver their Foundation’s message: by winning a pardon for Keith’s ancestor Homer Plessy.


It was Homer Plessy’s arrest in 1892 for sitting in a train car for white riders that started the court case, as part of a civil disobedience campaign organized by the New Orleans Black community to challenge the constitutionality of Louisiana’s 1890 Separate Car Act.


Phoebe’s great-great-grandfather was the local New Orleans judge who first heard Homer Plessy’s case, before it headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court in 1896 ruled in favor of that Jim Crow law, Homer Plessy had to plead guilty and pay a $25 fine.


The idea of winning a pardon arose because New Orleans had a new activist District Attorney, Jason Williams, who took office in early 2021, around the same time Together’s First Edition was published.


He created the DA office’s first Civil Rights Division to review possible wrongful convictions. Homer Plessy’s was definitely a wrongful conviction, as a civil rights lawyer suggested to Phoebe during the fall of 2021.


Phoebe and Keith contacted the new Civil Rights Division. It accepted the challenge. The Division’s lawyers discovered a 2006 law written specifically to pardon civil rights protestors arrested for breaking unjust segregation laws. That 2006 law hadn’t been used yet. Homer Plessy’s conviction was a good place to start.


The Division’s lawyers helped Keith and Phoebe win a posthumous pardon for Homer Plessy. Louisiana’s governor signed the pardon on January 5, 2022, almost exactly 125 years after Homer Plessy’s guilty plea.


Once the pardon was announced, Together’s publisher decided to bring out a new Second Edition so it would tell the whole story, with a new Epilogue describing how the pardon occurred.


This Second Edition’s publication date in 2023 is symbolic—on June 6, one day before Plessy Day, the date in 1892 when Homer Plessy was arrested. Each year on June 7th the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation holds a public ceremony. This year’s event is scheduled for Saturday, June 10, to make it possible for more people, especially students, to attend.


Q: At a time when many people in this country are focused on racial justice issues, what do you hope people take away from this new Second Edition of the book?


A: The new edition’s Epilogue, with its focus on making amends for a historic miscarriage of justice, shows that the wrongs of the past can be revisited and repaired in ways big and small. That may inspire the book’s readers to think about other past events that could be revisited and responded to.


That is noted eloquently in this excerpt from the Second Edition, a comment that District Attorney Jason Williams made on the day the Louisiana Pardon Board voted unanimously to approve the pardon: “There are small things we can all do, every day, to atone for the sins of the past we had nothing to do with.”


The Epilogue also presents the following comments from his remarks at the pardon-signing ceremony: “While Homer Plessy’s actions at that time made him guilty of a crime under the law, it was really the law that was the crime. . . .Homer Plessy was no criminal. He was then, and is now, a hero.”


Phoebe Ferguson noted at the ceremony that the reason for the pardon was “not to erase what happened 125 years ago but to acknowledge the wrong that was done and to reaffirm our pledge to do whatever is within our power to prevent such wrongs in the future.”


The rest of the book is basically the same as it was in the First Edition. I hope people can see from the work Keith and Phoebe have done that it’s possible to reach across the divides that separate us and work together to try to make things better.


One of the Foundation’s goals is to keep alive stories of resistance to injustice, especially those that are little-known but play a part in shaping our world today. The more people learn about events and attitudes of the past that have lingering repercussions today, the better the chance for understanding and ridding ourselves of those left-over attitudes.


Phoebe notes in the book, “You can’t really have a dialogue on race unless we both have an understanding of what has occurred over the past 400 years.”


Maybe this book will inspire the book’s readers to think about projects that might work in their communities to help bring people together. The book’s Afterword has brief introductions to other groups with similar goals.


Just by purchasing the book Together, people can help the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, now known as the Plessy and Ferguson Initiative. Half of the book’s earnings go to support its work.


Q: How have readers responded to the First Edition?


A: Keith, Phoebe, and I have given online presentations and discussions on the book for book stores, libraries, museums, and community groups.


We were featured in an in-person discussion at the Louisiana Book Festival in 2022 for which artist Ayo Scott joined us, with Ayo discussing his powerful artworks that help bring the story to life.


The response to these presentations has been very positive, as have comments on the book’s Facebook page, with such remarks as: “This is the history that should be taught in the classrooms.” Others on Facebook have commented about the persistence of injustice in their communities.


The book has received positive reviews in several publications and was listed as one of the best nonfiction books in a list compiled by the Bank Street College of Education.


The international social justice organization Search for Common Ground gave Keith and Phoebe an award in November 2021, shortly after news appeared that the Homer Plessy pardon was moving forward.


This organization has now given them a grant to expand their work in New Orleans neighborhoods to explore the impact that racial injustice has had on those communities, both historically and today.


The grant will provide resources to help community members deal with the trauma of uncovering stories they were never taught in school, while also helping them find ways to tell those stories now through historical markers and other options.


Q: How did you learn about the friendship between Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson and at what point did you decide to write a book based on their story and that of their families?


A: I was fascinated by an article I saw on them about 10 years ago in The Washington Post. 


At the time, I had just finished writing a book about people coming together across racial lines to protest against segregation in Baltimore in the 1960s, Round and Round Together, and here was an example of two people crossing a really big racial divide to work together to create the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.


Their two families had been seen as polar opposites in civil rights history. If they could work together, there was hope for the rest of us.


I looked for ways to let others know about what they were doing, and decided about five years ago to see if they’d be interested in having their story told in a book for adults and young people, similar to my Baltimore book. I contacted them through their Foundation and was delighted when they said, “Yes.”  


Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I already knew a little about New Orleans civil rights history from a school visit I did there in 2011 for PEN, the authors’ group, spending a day at the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School.


Located in the Lower Ninth Ward, the school had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but a fellow PEN member from New Orleans, Fatima Shaik, had a personal connection with the school and its teachers. She arranges for several PEN authors to make school visits there every year.


During my visit, I spoke with the school’s sixth graders in the morning about how to do interviews, giving examples from interviews I did for some of my books.


Then, with help from the teachers and from PEN, we had made arrangements to invite five New Orleans veterans of the Freedom Rides to come to the school in the afternoon and have the students interview these local heroes.


I had read several books before that trip to learn about major events in New Orleans civil rights history, but I learned so much more from sitting in on the interviews, which the students recorded. It was so moving to see how those Freedom Riders opened up to the students and shared so much of their lives.


I learned even more when I transcribed the tapes. The transcripts have now been donated to a local historical society, the Historic New Orleans Collection. That trip let me feel a personal connection to the city and its history. 


Before I reached out to Keith and Phoebe, I, of course, had also read the major book on the Plessy case, Keith Weldon Medley’s impressive We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson.


I live just outside of New York City, and so all my interviews with Keith and Phoebe happened by phone. After my first calls in February 2018, I saw that there was much more to learn. They offered suggestions for books to read to fill gaps in my knowledge, and others to interview.


I dug into the resources of Louisiana historical societies, libraries, and newspapers. The more I learned, the more books and articles I read. Together has a very long bibliography!


I kept calling Keith and Phoebe with more questions over the next year and a half. Then I boiled down all that reading and interviewing into a compact overview of that history (in the book’s middle chapters): pre-Civil War, Reconstruction, the Plessy case and its legal issues, the case’s disastrous Jim Crow segregation aftermath, and the impact that all this history still has on the nation today. 


Intertwined with this history is an account of how Keith and Phoebe learned of their connection to it. The last three chapters deal with the creation and work of their Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. As Keith says, their Foundation is a “flip on the script.”


I was so moved to hear how puzzled they each had been as children by their encounters with Jim Crow segregation and the effect it had on each of them.


They were both born in New Orleans in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. They never met as children and lived in totally different parts of the city. Yet they each encountered segregation in schools, parks, movie theaters, and stores during their growing up years.


It was surprising how little they each knew as children about the famous case that links their families. By the time they finally met as adults in 2004, they had learned about that history. Their childhood experiences with segregation had prepped each of them to feel a connection and a readiness to work together so they could change the ending of the story that bears their family names.


Their childhood memories also resonated with me personally, bringing up memories from my childhood in Baltimore, when segregation still ruled there as well.  


Q: The book includes many photographs of the Plessy and Ferguson families and others involved in the story--how did you find the photos, and how did you choose the ones to include?


A: I worked in children’s magazines for many years and learned that photographs are a great way to help tell a complicated story. In all my books, I include a lot of photos, interspersed throughout the book, as in a magazine, to bring the story to life.


Keith and Phoebe were generous in sharing family photos. So were many of their friends and colleagues. Local historical societies and libraries had good photo collections that could be searched online.


I was especially pleased with a photo A.P. Tureaud Jr. sent me of his father, the famous civil rights lawyer, showing him as a young man. Many books use photos of him as an older man, but he was a young firebrand when he was filing important civil rights lawsuits, and so I thought it was important to show him as the young activist he was. 


The same is true of the photo of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, the founder of the nation’s first Black daily newspaper. His great-great grandson, Mark Roudané, kindly let me use a photo that showed Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez as the young man he was when he started that newspaper.


I’m also very grateful to artist Ayo Scott for allowing us to show on the book’s cover and on inside pages some images from his wonderful mural in Plessy Park.


I hope that artwork—plus the drawings Keith Plessy did for his old elementary school and a drawing that Keith Osborne made as a fifth grader—might inspire readers, young and old, to create artwork about important events happening now.


For the same reason, I hope student groups might be inspired to create a play on how the events described in the book resonate with their lives. That’s what students did who are seen in two photos in the book from their play Se-Pa-Rate. They created this play as part of a drama workshop held at NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m collaborating on writing books for both young people and adults about several other social justice heroes and also one about a genre-bending musician.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A.

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