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Albion W. Tourgée
File:Albion W. Tourgée.jpg
Born May 2, 1838(1838-05-02)
Died May 21, 1905 (aged 67)
Nationality File:Flag of the United States.svg United States
Alma mater University of Rochester
Occupation Jurist

Albion Winegar Tourgée (May 2, 1838 – May 21, 1905) was an American soldier, Radical Republican, lawyer, judge, novelist, and diplomat. A pioneer civil rights activist, he founded the National Citizens' Rights Association and litigated for the plaintiff Homer Plessy in the famous segregation case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Historian Mark Elliott credits Tourgee with introducing the metaphor of "color-blind" justice into legal discourse.[1]

Justice is pictured as blind and her daughter the Law, ought at least to be color-blind.

Early life[]

Tourgée was born in rural Williamsfield, Ohio, the son of farmer Valentine Tourgée and Louisa Emma Winegar. His mother died when he was five. He attended common schools in Ashtabula County and in Lee, Massachusetts, where he spent two years living with an uncle. Tourgée entered the University of Rochester in 1859, but left it in 1861 without attaining a degree to teach school. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, in April of the same year he enlisted in the 27th New York Infantry. As was common practice with students who enlisted before completing their studies, the University awarded Tourgée an A.B. degree in June, 1862.[2]

Military service[]

Tourgée was wounded in the spine at the First Battle of Bull Run, from which he suffered temporary paralysis and a permanent back problem that plagued him for the rest of his life. Upon recovering sufficiently to resume his military career, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. At the Battle of Perryville, he was again wounded. On January 21, 1863, Tourgée was captured near Murfreesboro, Tennessee and was held as a prisoner-of-war in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, before his exchange on May 8, 1863. He resumed his duties and fought at the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Tourgée resigned his commission on December 6, 1863 and returned to Ohio. He married Emma Doiska Kilbourne, with whom he had one child.

Reconstruction Period[]

After the war, Tourgée established himself as a lawyer, farmer, and editor in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he and his wife moved so he could live in a warmer climate better suited to his war injuries. An active participant as a Reconstruction Carpetbagger in his new home, Tourgée had a number of inspiring and harrowing experiences that gave him ample material and impetus for the writing he would later undertake. In 1868 he represented Guilford County at the state constitutional convention, which was dominated by Republicans. There he successfully advocated for equal political and civil rights for all citizens; ending property qualifications for jury duty and officeholding; popular election of all state officers, including judges; free public education; abolition of whipping posts for those convicted of crimes; judicial reform; and uniform taxation. Nevertheless, he discovered that putting these reforms on paper did not translate into an ease of putting them into practice.

As a Republican-installed superior court judge from 1868 to 1874, Tourgée confronted the increasingly violent Ku Klux Klan, which was very powerful in his district and repeatedly threatened his life. Among his other activities, he served as a delegate to the 1875 constitutional convention and ran a losing campaign for Congress in 1878.

Literary Life[]

Financial success came in 1879 with the publication of A Fool's Errand, by One of the Fools, (Fords, Howard & Hulbert, Nov 1879) a novel based on his experiences of Reconstruction, which sold 200,000 copies. Its sequel, Bricks Without Straw, also was a bestseller.

In 1881, Tourgée moved to Mayville, New York, near the Chautauqua Institution, and made his living as writer and editor of the literary weekly Our Continent until it failed in 1884. He wrote many more novels and essays in the next two decades, many about the Lake Erie region to which he had located, including, among others, Button's Inn.

Plessy Case[]

What would become the Plessy case began when a group of prominent black leaders in New Orleans organized a "Citizens' Committee" in September 1891 to challenge Louisiana's 1890 law intended "to promote the comfort of passengers" by requiring all state railway companies "to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing separate coaches or compartments" on their passenger trains. To assist them in their challenge, this group retained the legal services of "Judge Tourgée," as he was popularly known.

Perhaps the nation's most outspoken white Radical on the "race question" in the late 1880s and 1890s, Tourgée had called for resistance to the Louisiana law in his widely read newspaper column, "A Bystander's Notes," which, though written for the Chicago Republican (later known as the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean and after 1872 known as the Chicago Record-Herald), was syndicated in many newspapers across the country. Largely as a consequence of this column, "Judge Tourgée" had become well known in the black press for his bold denunciations of lynching, segregation, disfranchisement, white supremacy, and scientific racism, and he was the New Orleans Citizens' Committee's first choice to lead their legal challenge to the new Louisiana segregation law.

Tourgée, who was lead attorney for Homer Plessy, first deployed the term “color blindness” in his briefs in the Plessy case and had used it on several prior occasions on behalf of the struggle for civil rights. Indeed, Tourgee's first use of the legal metaphor of "color blindness" came decades before while serving as a Superior Court judge in North Carolina. In his dissent in Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan borrowed the metaphor of "color blindness" from Tourgée’s legal brief.

Later life[]

In 1897, following Tourgée's involvement in the Plessy case, President William McKinley appointed him U.S. consul to France, and he lived and served there in Bordeaux until his death, in early 1905, when he became gravely ill for several months, but then appeared to rebound. The recovery was only momentary, however, and he succumbed to acute uremia resulting from one of his Civil War wounds.

Tourgée's ashes were interred in Mayville, New York, at the Mayville Cemetery and are commemorated by a 12-foot granite obelisk inscribed thus: I pray thee then Write me as one that loves his fellow-man.[3]


  • Mark Elliott, Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (2006). An award-winning biography of Tourgée.
  • Michael Kent Curtis, "Tourgée" in The American National Biography. (2000)
  • Otto Olsen, Carpetbagger's Crusade: The Life of Albion Winegar Tourgée (1965)
  • Roy F. Dibble, Albion W. Tourgée (1921)
  • J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, Reconstruction in North Carolina (1914)
  • "Albion W. Tourgée Dead.", The New York Times, May 22, 1905, p. 7.
  • Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, William S. Powell, Ed., "Albion Winegar Tourgee", (North Carolina Press 1979)


  1. Elliott, Color Blind Justice....
  2. Toth, Margaret, Albion Winegar Tourgée, '62, University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. III, Spring 1953, No. 3.
  3. Crocker, Kathleen A., Chautauqua County Lawyers Oppose Segregation: The Robert H. Jackson-Albion W. Tourgee Connection, Jamestown Post-Journal, Family Section, April 24, 2004. Quotation from Abou ben Adhem, by Leigh Hunt.

External links[]

fi:Albion Tourgée