Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Plessy v. Ferguson: An Individual's Response to Oppression


K20 Center, Chelsee Wilson, Susan McHale, Anita West | Published: May 17th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 11th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course U.S. History
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 130 minutes


Segregation was a pivotal issue in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Homer Plessy took a stand against segregation and the notion that separate but equal was legal. Upon reviewing and evaluating the Fourteenth Amendment, Jim Crow Laws, the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and other elements that lend to this era, students will examine and evaluate if "separate but equal" exists and the impact of Homer Plessy's role in the fight for social justice.

Essential Question(s)

What are the responsibilities of an individual in regards to issues of social justice?



Students will independently study, analyze, and question a photograph from the segregation era as an inquiry activity. They will formulate feedback about the photograph. Then, they will work in small groups to discuss and craft two critical questions per group that will be used throughout the lesson.


Students will work in small groups to investigate the Fourteenth Amendment, Jim Crow laws, segregation images, and the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The goal is to become experts of their assigned topic as well as create takeaway (key point) posters to use as teaching tools.


Students, working in small groups, will use their designed posters to formulate a takeaway (key point) presentation. Each group will present their learning in an engaging manner (via song, visual, short essay, poem, etc.). They will also engage other students in a question/answer session where they will be responsible for facilitating learning.


Students will reflect on learning and participate in small group and whole class discussions revisiting the thought provoking questions established in the initial activity. The teacher will prompt students when necessary and facilitate learning using discussion questions and activities.


Students will reflect on learning through the use of a Quick Write activity where they will select a question, answer the question, and defend it using notes and learning materials from the lesson.


  • Large poster board or large piece of butcher paper - each group will need one

  • Markers

  • (Optional) Chrome Books/ iPads or an Internet-accessible device

  • Smart board/whiteboard

  • Pencils and paper

  • Hand outs, if technology is unavailable


Display Document 1, which depicts a man using segregated water fountains. Students will complete a Photo Deconstruction activity by independently studying, analyzing, and questioning the photograph using the "Image Deconstruction and Analysis" handout. The handout provides a space for students to write down their deconstruction of the photo while also directing them to look for certain items. For example, students will write down people, places, items, and placement in the photograph as well as their impression of the photograph as a whole. Next, students will write two statements and one question on the handout.

Then, in groups of three to four, have students discuss their responses on the handout with one another. You may ask groups to identify what similarities and differences they had or you may ask students to discuss their overall impressions with one another.

Direct group members to work together to narrow down responses to only two questions, statements, and/or connections that were the most thought provoking to their group.

Have one student from each group write the two selected responses from their group collaboration on the whiteboard. To close the Engage activity, give students time to read and discuss questions posted by all groups. Student-selected responses will remain posted and will be revisited during the lesson.


For this section, students should be arranged in groups of four to five students. To group students, you can have them draw numbers or you can place them in groups at your discretion. Each group will be assigned one document (listed below) and will work to become experts of the material they are assigned and will facilitate a learning opportunity for the remaining groups.

On a large sheet of chart paper, each group will create a presentation of their assigned source. This presentation can be an advertisement, Twitter feed, political cartoon, political propaganda, poem, short essay, story, song, etc., that best represents a minimum of five key components of their learning. During the learning process, require each group member to identify five key pieces of information to contribute to the group discussion and project.

Group 1: (Doc. 2 - link) Evaluate the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically paying close attention to verbiage regarding separate but equal. Example: Students should identify the following words from section one of the Fourteenth Amendment as verbiage that relates to separate but equal, "nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Group 2: (Doc 3 - link) Evaluate the court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Groups may want to analyze the decision through the majority as well as the dissent by Justice Harlan.

Group 3: (Doc. 4 - link and attachment) Read the context of the Plessy vs. Ferguson court case. Then, analyze the photographs in the attached document titled Separate but Equal, You Decide! If technology is available, students can visit the Library of Congress for additional images and photo information. Using the "Image Deconstruction and Analysis" handout may be helpful for this group.

Group 4: (Doc. 5 - link) Investigate the Jim Crow laws. Students may look for specific ways in which public facilities were segregated, or they may want to investigate the financial implications of Jim Crow segregation.

Group 5: (Doc. 6 - link) Explore the backstory of Homer Adolph Plessy. Students may look at why Homer Plessy was selected for the legal challenge and the implications for his participation in the case.

Group 6: (Doc. 7 - link) Investigate the passage of separate but equal laws in the South. Students may investigate the history behind the passage of segregation throughout the United States.

Group 7: (Doc. 8 - link) Explore the history of black codes during the Reconstruction period. Students may compare the passage of black codes in the North versus the Jim Crow laws in the South following Reconstruction.


Using the posters that were created in groups, students will develop a plan to present the topic they were assigned. Each group must communicate verbally the key learning points with the intention of teaching the remaining groups the key elements of their assigned topic. Each group will open the floor for questions, comments, and/or feedback but limit this to a few questions for time purposes.

Each group member is responsible for a role in the presentation. He or she must teach one key component of learning from group work.

While each group is presenting, the audience members will be required to take notes independently. Before presentations begin, direct students to use a sheet of notebook paper to take notes over each group's presentation. Remind students that notes over the presentations will be submitted for a possible grade.


To begin the Extend portion of the lesson, have students turn to a partner and create a T-Chart labeled, I Used to Think But Now I Know (a template is located under Attachments).

On the chart, have students work with their partners to come up with three things they used to think and the new information they now know. When they have finished, have each group share one thing from their chart with the class. It would be helpful to set a timer for students working on their charts.

To reiterate the goal of this lesson, show this short PBS video (linked here or URL located under Resources).

Upon finishing the video, go back to the original questions and statements written on the board at the beginning of the lesson. Lead a class discussion over these questions.

Then, lead a class discussion using the following questions:

  1. What was Plessy's intent and how was that intent changed, somehow, by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the law?

  2. Can equality be legislated by law? What is an individual's responsibility to equality?

  3. Did the Plessy decision allow people to discriminate more freely? What was the aftermath?


To evaluate learning, students will compose a Two-Minute Paper to reflect on learning and provide feedback. Notes from all learning activities may be used to defend answers.

Students will be given choice by allowing them to select and respond to one of the following questions. A handout with the six quick write questions has been attached (titled "Plessy v Ferguson Reflection Quick Write"). Feel free to use the handout or to verbally pose the following questions for students to respond to.

  1. What are the responsibilities of an individual regarding issues of social justice?

  2. Plessy intentionally sat in the wrong section of the train car, refusing to sit in the segregated car. He wanted to challenge the Jim Crow laws through legal proceedings under constitutional rights granted by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court decided that separate but equal was constitutional as long as the facilities were equal. In your opinion, was this Homer Plessy’s individual response to oppression?

  3. Can we legislate true equality? What do the results of Plessy v. Ferguson and its aftermath teach us about our own US history?

  4. Was continued civil disobedience by African Americans the only recourse after the Plessy decision? Can you think of other issues where civil disobedience might be the only recourse?

  5. What would happen to a modern society if Plessy v. Ferguson had not been overturned by later civil rights rulings, such as Brown v. Board of Education? Where would we be now?

  6. Are the states who are requiring members of the LGBTQ community to use the bathroom that is assigned to their biology a variation of the "Plessy" issue? Why or why not?