RODOLPHE LUCIEN DESDUNES
(1849 – 1928)
“The truth of history is the nourishing mother of justice.” From Desdunes’s book Our People and Our History: Fifty Creole Portraits
Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes was one of the leading civil rights activists behind the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which unsuccessfully challenged the 1890 Separate Car Act of Louisiana that required “separate, but equal” accommodations for blacks and whites on train cars.
Desdunes was born in New Orleans on November 15, 1849 to Pierre Jérémie and his wife Henriette. The Desdunes family migrated to Louisiana in the early eighteenth century, following the revolution in Saint-Domingue. The family got its name from the small town of Desdunes located in the Artibonite valley in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti.
In the early 1870s, Desdunes enrolled in law courses at Straight University. From 1879 to 1885, he worked for the U.S. Customs Service of New Orleans. By 1889, Desdunes became a contributor to The Crusader, a weekly Black newspaper published in French and English, with a strong civil rights focus. Following the passing of the Separate Car Act in 1890, Desdunes and his publisher Louis A. Martinet formed the Comité des Citoyens to organize a challenge to segregationist laws. In 1892, Desdunes’ son Daniel was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act, and four months later Homer Plessy challenged the act again, with the backing of the Comité des Citoyens, which organized and funded the historic legal challenge.
In addition to his work as a journalist and civil rights activist, Desdunes published the book Our People and Our History: Fifty Creole Portraits — the first history of the Creole families of New Orleans. It was published in French in 1911, and translated to English posthumously in 1937.