John Marshall Harlan served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1877 to 1911.
A Kentuckian by birth, Harlan had the nickname “The Great Dissenter” because he was the only justice to vote against the outcome of Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 and other cases that solidified the legal standing of segregation until the high court and Congress began to dissolve those laws in the 1950s and 1960s.
Harlan was born at Harlan’s Station, five miles west of Danville, Kentucky in 1833 to a prominent slaveholding family, whose roots in the area date back to the American Revolutionary War. His father, James Harlan, was a lawyer and politician who served as an U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State, and state legislator.
He had several older brothers, possibly including a mulatto half-brother, Robert James Harlan, born in 1816 into slavery. His father raised his half-brother in his own household, making sure that he received an education. Historians have suggested that his closeness to his brother may have influenced Harlan to argue on behalf of equal rights.
Click here to learn more about the namesake of John M. Harlan High School, NISD’s 11th comprehensive high school.