Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Jennings Graham’

The Rosa Parks of Manhattan streetcars in 1854

April 19, 2012

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.