The Rosa Parks of Manhattan streetcars in 1854

Elizabeth Jennings was running late.

It was July 16, 1854, and Jennings, a 24-year-old teacher, was headed to the First Colored American Congregational Church on Sixth Street and the Bowery.

At Chatham and Pearl Streets, she boarded a streetcar. Like schools, hotels, and many jobs, streetcars operated on a de facto color line and often refused black New Yorkers.

On this summer morning, the driver insisted Jennings get off and wait for a colored streetcar. She said no.

“I told him . . . I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York . . . and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church,” she later said, according to a 2005 New York Times article.

Jennings was forced off. But the story was just beginning. Her prominent family hired a young lawyer (and future U.S. president) named Chester Arthur to take her case.

Jennings won and received $250 in damages. Still, it took several years of lawsuits for the city’s streetcars to be fully desegregated.

Elizabeth Jennings married and had a son; she ran a school for black children and died in 1901. She’s buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, but her name lives on with this City Hall street sign.

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11 Responses to “The Rosa Parks of Manhattan streetcars in 1854”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Cleveland also had an Elizabeth (Eliza) Jennings (1809-1887) who founded a number of philanthropies for children, the ill, and the elderly. The Eliza Jennings Home is still an important part of Cleveland.

  2. railgun_nation Says:

    This is AWESOME! Never knew about this story, worked in the Park Row/ City Hall area as a teen…..

  3. The Day | ‘White-Glove Bandit’ Arrested Near Tompkins - The Local East Village Blog - Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York points out that Elizabeth Jennings, a black schoolteacher, became the “Rosa Parks of Manhattan streetcars” when she refused to wait for a “colored”-only streetcar in 1854. She sued and won $250 in damages. The incident happened at on Sixth Street and the Bowery. […]

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    I have no idea when the sign went up, I couldn’t find anything on it. Maybe it’s new?

  5. Jim Says:

    Here is the Elizabeth Jennings online memorial:

  6. Lady G. Says:

    That’s a great piece of history. I never heard of this woman. Too often the legacy of Rosa Parks overshadows everyone else who also took a stand against racism.

  7. Roswell Taylor Says:

    Be sure that Tom Joyner gets this story for “Little Know Black History”

  8. Brenda Says:

    This is the history that our young people need to know- that they stand on the shoulders of our courageous ancestors!!! Some of our young people won’t “bust a grape!”

  9. John Hewitt Says:

    Her lead lawyer in the winning suit was the young Chester A. Arthur, future president of the United States.

  10. A new president is sworn in on Lexington Avenue | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone once home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in […]

  11. The Woman Who Refused to Leave a Whites-Only Streetcar | JSTOR Daily Says:

    […] where she made her streetcar stand, there is public recognition of her legacy. In 2007, a street sign was installed at Spruce Street and Park Row, renaming this corner of Manhattan “Elizabeth Jennings […]

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