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Illustration of passengers waiting to board the

SS Republic*

 

The tragic sinking

of the Republic*

 

Passengers, such as Sauvinet, aboard a

lifeboat seeking rescue.

Republic Passenger Charles Sauvinet:

Changing the Face of America


Republic passenger Charles S. Sauvinet is quite possibly one of the most historically significant persons from the mid-1800s whom you've likely never heard. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana ca. 1828, Sauvinet was the son of Joseph Sauvinet, a wealthy Caucasian French merchant (possibly involved in some piracy as well) and Rose Daziner, a racially mixed Haitian. Law at the time prohibited Charles' parents from marrying because of their racial differences.

As a grown man during the Civil War, Sauvinet served on both sides of the battlefield: first for the Confederacy and then for the Union. He holds the distinction of being the longest serving black officer subsequently reaching the rank of Captain in the Union Army. Well educated, he was also fluent in multiple languages and once came to the aid of the famous Admiral David Farragut when summoned to his ship to translate an important message. Additionally, the SS Tennessee, later renamed the SS Republic, briefly served as Admiral Farragut’s flagship, making it quite possible for Sauvinet to have been a guest on the Republic well before her final and fateful journey southward!

Not long after the war in October 1865, Sauvinet is listed among the 80 passengers and crew aboard the Republic en route from New York to New Orleans. Little did Charles expect his homeward bound voyage would take a tragic turn as the hapless vessel sailed directly into a fierce hurricane raging up the Eastern Seaboard. Battered by wind and waves, and water rising rapidly in the hold, the crew and passengers abandoned ship in four lifeboats and a makeshift raft. Sauvinet and the others aboard the lifeboats were luckily rescued by passing ships, yet the fate of those clinging to the raft was less fortunate. To read more about what happen during the Republic's fateful last voyage, please click here.

Safely ashore, Charles soon returned to New Orleans where he became the head of the city's Freedman's Bank and ran for Alderman, becoming one of the first "men of color" to be elected to office in Louisiana. This was just the beginning of his political career; not long after in 1870, Sauvinet won the election for Sheriff of Orleans Parish — becoming the first black Sheriff of the Parish.

While impacting political history in New Orleans, little did Sauvinet know that he would soon play a much larger role within the American judicial system. As Sheriff, he entered a popular New Orleans coffee house and eatery, known as "The Bank" accompanied by some acquaintances. Much to his dismay, he was refused service because of the color of his skin. He promptly filed suit against Mr. Walker, the owner of "The Bank," asking for legal costs, plus $10,000 in damages and revocation of the owner's business license. Although the court found in his favor he was nonetheless only awarded costs and $1,000 in damages. Sauvinet would not settle for less and filed an appeal in a higher court. He was denied a new trial. Days later, the owner of "The Bank" filed an appeal to the first trial. The reason for the appeal may have been an American first – reverse prejudice! Walker claimed he lost the case because there was prejudice in the Judge's final decision. Further, Mr. Walker demanded a trial by jury.

Sauvinet's lawyers responded to this appeal asserting that the damages of $10,000 should have been granted, and prayed upon the court to amend its decision. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted the request for the new trial.

The Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana went to trial considering both appeals, but upheld the decision of the lower court. Both Sauvinet and Walker then filed petitions which could be answerable only by the United States Supreme Court. On March 22, 1878 the United States Supreme Court heard the petitions in a case which would become known in legal history as "Walker v. Sauvinet, 92 U.S. 90 (1875)." The decision of the court was to uphold the lower court's judgment. However, they also upheld the legality of the Louisiana Constitution which says:

"All persons shall enjoy equal rights and privileges upon any conveyance of a public character, and all places of business or of public resort, or for which a license is required by either state, parish, or municipal authority, shall be deemed places of a public character, and shall be open to the accommodation and patronage of all persons, without distinction or discrimination on account of race or color."


This decision has become a legal precedent for over one hundred cases between 1875 and 2003, including Brown v the State of Mississippi, 1936; Twining v New Jersey, 1908; R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company v Bonta, 2003 and many others.

Sauvinet died in New Orleans in 1878 a few months following the Supreme Court decision –and sadly, would never know the significant role he played in changing the face of America.

 

* Illustrations courtesy of Weldon Owen Education/Illustrations by Daniel Rudnicki

 

 

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