Lawyer, professor, musician, speaker, and now debut novelist Michael H. Rubin is here with an original essay about the implications of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and the role it plays in his new The Cottoncrest Curse, a legal thriller that intertwines fictional and historical characters.
Metifs, Meameloucs, Railway Cars,
and The Cottoncrest Curse
By Michael H. Rubin
In The Cottoncrest Curse, a series of gruesome deaths ignite feuds that burn a path from the cotton fields to the courthouse steps, from the moss-draped bayous of Cajun country to the bordellos of 19th-century New Orleans, from the Civil War era to the Civil Rights era and across the Jim Crow decades to the Freedom Marches of the 1960s.
So, what are metifs and meamaloucs, and how are they and railway cars involved in The Cottoncrest Curse?
The Cottoncrest Curse explores the dangers inherent in preconceived stereotypes. The infamous Jim Crow laws, which propel the action in The Cottoncrest Curse, were built on the fallacious stereotype that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. The Jim Crow laws were given validity by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal case. Plessy arose, however, not as a way to oppress blacks but rather as a test case to vindicate their rights, and a number of characters in The Cottoncrest Curse are involved in the Plessy case.
Jim Crow laws resulted in legalized discrimination against blacks. These laws didn’t merely mandate segregation and unequal treatment of those who “appeared” to be “black.” They attempted to parse bloodlines, so that even if one’s parents and grandparents were “white,” an individual was still considered “black” because of his or her distant ancestors. Louisiana even had terms to describe these bloodlines. Discrimination was legal against “metifs” — those who had just one black great-grandparent — or even “meameloucs” — those with just one black great-great grandparent.
Louis Martinet, a black lawyer who lived in the late 1800s and who appears in The Cottoncrest Curse, came up with a brilliant idea. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from making or enforcing any laws that would “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Yet, Louisiana had passed a law prohibiting blacks and whites from sitting in the same railway cars, relegating blacks to separate cars.
Martinet believed that separate was inherently unequal, and so he recruited Homer Plessy to be a plaintiff. Both Martinet and Plessy were light-skinned; in fact, both could passe blanc — pass for white — if they wanted to, but neither did. Both were proud of their black heritage.
Homer Plessy boarded a railway train in New Orleans bound for the Louisiana town of Covington and deliberately sat in the “white” car. When the conductor came to take his ticket, Homer did not merely hand it to him and attempt to passe blanc. Rather, Homer, who was a metif, boldly spoke up, declaring that he was “a Negro.” He was promptly arrested, as Homer and Martinet had anticipated, and the case challenging the mandatory separation of whites and blacks was underway.
The result, however, was not what Homer Plessy, Louis Martinet, and a host of others had hoped it would be. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the statute, recognizing that to strike it down would undermine all the Jim Crow laws, and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling with its infamous “separate but equal” pronouncement. It was not until 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, that Plessy was overturned by Brown’s famous statement that separate is inherently unequal.
While Jake Gold, the protagonist in The Cottoncrest Curse, is fictional, many historical figures — like Louis Martinet and Homer Plessy — are key to the plot. I wanted to create a page-turning thriller that was firmly grounded in historical events, and I’m pleased by the reception it has received so far, with Publishers Weekly calling it a “gripping debut mystery” and James Carville deeming it a “powerful epic” that is “expertly composed in both its historical content and beautifully constructed scenery.”
I hope readers will enjoy reading The Cottoncrest Curse as much as I enjoyed doing the historical research and writing the novel.
About Michael H. Rubin
Michael H. Rubin has conquered many worlds, and now he is branching out into new territory – fiction.
law firm that has offices stretching from California to Florida and from Texas and Louisiana to New York.
He has served as an adjunct law professor at the Louisiana State University Law School for more than 30 years, and is a nationally known speaker whose talks on topics such as legal ethics, negotiations, appellate advocacy, real estate, finance and trial tactics have been widely praised throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Rubin has presented more than 375 major lectures and papers. He is an author, co-author, and contributing writer of 13 legal books and more than 30 articles for law reviews and periodicals, and his writings have been cited as authoritative by state and federal courts, including state supreme courts and federal appellate courts.
His latest legal book is Louisiana Security Devices: A Précis (Lexis/Nexis 2011), and his first novel, The Cottoncrest Curse is a legal thriller and multi-generational saga to be published September 10, 2014 by the award-winning LSU Press. The novel will be available nationwide in bookstores and as an e-book.