The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar
By KATHARINE GREIDER
Published: November 13, 2005
AS the civil rights figure Rosa Parks lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda two weeks ago, her 19th-century Northern forerunner, a young black schoolteacher who helped integrate New York’s transit system by refusing to get off a streetcar in downtown Manhattan, rested in near-perfect obscurity.
Mrs. Parks’s resistance on a bus became a central facet of American identity, a parable retold with each succeeding class of kindergartners. But who has ever heard of Elizabeth Jennings?
The disparity is largely an accident of timing. Thanks to television, Americans around the country became a witness to events in 1955 Montgomery, Ala.; by contrast, Jennings’s supporters had to rely on a burgeoning but still fragmented mid-19th-century press. By 1955, when Parks refused to be unseated, segregation was emerging as an issue the nation could not ignore. When Jennings, 24, made her stand, on July 16, 1854, the first eerie rebel yell had yet to rise from a Confederate line. Segregation was a local or perhaps a regional story. It was slavery that was tearing the nation apart.
If Elizabeth Jennings was ahead of her time, she was also, on that midsummer Sunday, running late. She was due at the First Colored American Congregational Church on Sixth Street near the Bowery, where she was an organist. When she and her friend Sarah Adams reached the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets, she didn’t wait to see a placard announcing, “Negro Persons Allowed in This Car.” She hailed the first horse-drawn streetcar that came along.
As soon as the two black women got on, the conductor balked. Get off, he insisted. Jennings declined. Finally he told the women they could ride, but that if any white passengers objected, “you shall go out … or I’ll put you out.”
“I told him,” Jennings wrote shortly after the incident, that “I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born … and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.”
The 8 or 10 white passengers must have stared. Replying that he was from Ireland, the conductor tried to haul Jennings from the car. She resisted ferociously, clinging first to a window frame, then to the conductor’s own coat. “You shall sweat for this,” he vowed. Driving on, with Jennings’s companion left at the curb, he soon spotted backup in the figure of a police officer, who boarded the car and thrust Jennings, her bonnet smashed and her dress soiled, to the sidewalk.
But, like Mrs. Parks a century later, Elizabeth Jennings had her own backup. She had grown up among a small cadre of black abolitionist ministers, journalists, educators and businessmen who stood up for their community as whites harshly reasserted the color line in the decades after New York had abolished slavery in 1827. Her father, Thomas L. Jennings, was a prominent tailor who helped found both a society that provided benefits for black people and the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which later moved to Harlem.
The daughter had worked in black schools co-founded by a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Her own church – First Colored American – was a place of learning and political rebellion, where, one evening in 1854, addresses on God and the Bible alternated with talks on “The Duty of Colored People Towards the Overthrow of American Slavery” and “Elevation of the African Race.”
After the incident aboard the streetcar, Jennings took her story to this extended family. Her letter detailing the incident was read in church the next day; supporters forwarded the letter to The New York Daily Tribune, whose editor was the abolitionist Horace Greeley, and to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which both reprinted it in full. Meanwhile, her father made contact with a young white lawyer named Chester Arthur.
Arthur, who would go on to become president upon the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, was at the time a beginner in his 20’s only recently admitted to the bar. He nevertheless won the case, against the Third Avenue Railway Company; a judge ruled that “colored persons if sober, well behaved, and free from disease” could not be excluded from public conveyances “by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence,” according to newspaper reports. “Our readers will rejoice with us” in the “righteous verdict,” remarked Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
NEW YORK before the Civil War resembled the Jim Crow South of Rosa Parks’s era in at least this respect: A pervasive racial caste system decreed that a great deal of space – in schools, restaurants, workplaces and churches – was strictly off-limits to African-Americans. The city’s transit system, in its infancy, was a particularly bitter proving ground.
In the 1830’s, when the first omnibus routes were established, the newspaper The Colored American told black New Yorkers, “Brethren, you are MEN – if you have not horses and vehicles of your own to travel with, stay at home, or travel on foot” rather than be “degraded and insulted” on city coaches. But by the time Elizabeth Jennings boarded the streetcar at Chatham and Pearl Streets, the avenues churned with horse-powered public transportation, and the city stretched far beyond 42nd Street, a long way to walk.
Jennings’s legal victory did not complete integration of city transit. But blacks actively tested her precedent, in part through the Legal Rights Association, which her father founded for that purpose. In 1859, another case brought by that group resulted in a settlement, and by the following year nearly all the city’s streetcar lines were open to African-Americans.
And Elizabeth Jennings? The details of her life have been told most painstakingly by John H. Hewitt, who, in his 1990 study in the journal New York History, reported that he had not uncovered a single biography of the woman, “not even a thumbnail sketch.”
But a few things he did learn. She kept teaching. She married a man named Charles Graham. During the 1863 draft riots, when largely Irish rioters vented their rage at a new conscription law on the black people who were their most direct competitors for jobs and homes, Elizabeth and her husband were likely at home on Broome Street, bent over their ailing year-old son, Thomas. According to his death certificate, the child died of “convulsions,” perhaps a last manifestation of one of the infectious diseases that sent urban death rates soaring in those years. While the city was reeling in the aftermath of its worst street melee yet, the couple were laying their son’s small body to rest in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
As an older woman, Elizabeth Jennings Graham established, on the first floor of her house at 237 West 41st Street, the city’s first kindergarten for black children. The children made art; they planted roots and seeds in the garden. “Love of the beautiful will be instilled into these youthful minds,” read an article on the school.
It was there, too, that the woman who boarded the streetcar at Chatham and Pearl Streets died. The year was 1901. She was buried in Cypress Hills, near her son, and a few thousand Union dead.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1830–1901) was a black woman who lived in New York City. She figured in an important early civil rightscase, when she insisted on her right to ride on a streetcar in 1854.
Graham was the daughter of Thomas Jennings, a successful tailor, and an important man in New York’s black community. By 1854, she had become a schoolteacher and church organist. She taught at the city’s African Free Schools, and later in the public schools.
Jennings v. Third Ave. Railroad
In the 1850s the horse-drawn streetcar on rails was becoming more common as a mode of transportation, competing with the horse-drawn omnibus in the city.(Elevated heavy rail, the next new mode in the city, did not go into service until 1869.) Like the omnibus lines, the streetcar lines were owned by private companies and the owners or drivers could refuse to serve any passengers they wished to. Many refused to allow black passengers.
On Sunday, 16 July 1854, Jennings set off for the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was organist. As she was running late, she boarded a streetcar of the Third Avenue Railroad Company at the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets. The conductor ordered her to get off. When she refused, the conductor tried to remove her by force. Eventually, with the aid of a police officer, Jennings was ejected from the streetcar.
Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune commented on the incident in February 1855:
She got upon one of the Company’s cars last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.
There was an organized movement among black New Yorkers to end this discrimination, led by notables such as Jennings’s father, Thomas, Rev. J. W. C. Pennington, and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Her story was publicized by Frederick Douglass, and received national attention.
Jennings filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company in Brooklyn, where Third Avenue was headquartered. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur. Her case was handled by the firm’s 24-year-old junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, future President of the United States.
In 1855, she received a verdict in her favor. In his charge to the jury, Brooklyn Circuit Court Judge William Rockwell declared:
Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.
The jury found for Jennings, and awarded damages in the amount of $225.00 (comparable to $5,000 to $10,000 in 2008 dollars), and $22.50 in costs. The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its cars desegregated.
The Third Avenue Railroad, one of the first four street railway companies to be franchised in the city, had been in operation only one year at the time of the Jennings incident. The Jennings case was instrumental in establishing policy for a new service industry. A month after the verdict, a black man was refused admission to a car of the Eighth Avenue Railroad, another of the first four companies. He won a similar judgment confirming that in New York passengers could not be refused a ride based on race. New York’s public transit was fully desegregated by 1861.
Jennings married Charles Graham, and had a one-year-old son, Thomas. He was a sickly child and died of convulsions during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863. With the assistance of a white undertaker, the Grahams slipped through mob-infested streets and buried their child in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. The funeral service was read by Rev. Morgan Dix of the Trinity Church on Wall Street.
Little more is known about her. In later years, Graham lived at 247 West 41st Street, where she operated the city’s first kindergarten for black children. She died in 1901.