The National Writers Series is welcoming author Steve Luxenberg to the City Opera House stage. The Traverse City event is set for Thursday, February 6. Steve is known for Annie’s Ghosts and is also a journalist at The Washington Post.
Luxenberg will sit down with guest host Dan Wanschura of Interlochen Public Radio. Doors open at 6 p.m., with the stage event beginning at 7 p.m., followed by a book signing. Tickets are free for students, $16 for general admission and $26 for premium reserve. Tickets are available at the City Opera House, by calling (231) 941-8082, Ext. 201 or online. Note, free student tickets are not available online.
Steve Luxenberg has written two drastically different books.
“One fell in my lap and one was a choice,” he laughs. Annie’s Ghosts, written about an aunt he didn’t know existed, is the lap book. Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation is the choice. (Separate is being published in paperback on February 4.)
After writing Annie’s Ghosts (published in 2009), Luxenberg was searching for a new topic. “I always wanted to write a book with the Supreme Court at the center—the court as a window to America,” Luxenberg says. He was also inspired by Gideon’s Trumpet, by Anthony Lewis, about the case that ensured a person’s right to a lawyer even if they couldn’t afford one. “I thought it was marvelous and wanted to write a book like that.”
Plessy v. Ferguson, regularly called one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever, upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal,” and segregation was allowed to continue for another 50 years, until Brown v. Board of Education.
“After 40 years as a reporter and editor, race was so often a part of the story,” he says about working in Washington and Baltimore. “I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the continued divide.” That lead him back to the 19th century and racial segregation and how it affects us today, he says. He started “pulling at threads” in the Plessy v. Ferguson case and then had an email conversation with a professor at Stanford. “Am I wrong,” he asked the professor, “to think that historians have plumbed the Plessy case mostly for its legal and constitutional consequences? That no book has fully explored the story of separation in the 19th century?”
He was not wrong, the professor said. And Luxenberg set to work. “I’m not qualified to write on the legal issues, but I am a storyteller.”
The book tells the stories of several main players in the case, from Louis Martinet, the New Orleans newspaper editor who arranged for Plessy to get thrown off a train, to John Marshall Harlan, the “Great Dissenter.” Harlan was the only southerner on the Supreme Court and the only justice to disagree with the decision to allow “separate but equal.”
The Washington Post, in its review of the book, says, “Separate reminds us that our history is not simply a narrative of greater and greater freedom. Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away. Constitutional guarantees can sometimes, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, be violated with impunity. We live at a moment not unlike the 1890s, with its retreat from the ideal of equality.”
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“I wanted to tell that grand sweeping story,” Luxenberg says. “Plessy is not the story, it’s the end of the story. No, it’s not even the end. I couldn’t understand Plessy without understanding what went before.”
What went before is surprising. For instance, the Great Dissenter himself had been a slave owner, then turned against slavery, but not totally in favor of outright abolition. Luxenberg’s clear and colorful writing brings these people—and their families and backgrounds—back to life.
Did Luxenberg have a favorite? “I have different favorite characters for different reasons,” he says. “A writer wants the character to be interesting. Harlan is interesting because he evolves, so it’s fun to write about him. Also, he’s a great storyteller. Albion (Tourgee, the lawyer representing Plessy) is a serial embellisher and his arc is interesting.” For instance, he’d told his wife before they were even married that, “I’m not very political” but then becomes one of the most radical characters in America.
Researching the book took Luxenberg from Massachusetts to Louisiana, from scraps of newspaper clippings to climate-controlled archives.
One inspiring find was the petition circulated by Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, now housed in the Massachusetts State Archives. “I know what the petition said, I know how many people signed it, but I wanted to hold it in my hands,” Luxenberg says. The petition stretches 14 feet long, with multiple sheets of old paper glued together.
Luxenberg also spent months researching in Michigan, his home state. Henry Billings Brown, the justice who wrote the decision that upholds separation, spent his adult years in Michigan and was a cornerstone of the Michigan legal community, Luxenberg says. His papers are at the Detroit Public Library.
“I spent weeks there reading 20 years’ worth of pocket diaries,” Luxenberg says. “They were frustrating. I kept saying, ‘Come on Henry, give me some insight into your character. Stop talking about the weather!’”
Michigan case law plays into Plessy in other ways, too, Luxenberg says. “I thought about the state as I hadn’t before.”