Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1830-1901) was a black woman who lived in New York City. She figured in an important early civil rights case, when she insisted on being admitted to a streetcar in 1854.

Early life

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 early 19th century, there were two common modes of public transportation: omnibuses and streetcars, both pulled by horses. New York's first bus route was probably on 4th Avenue in 1831. By the 1850s, urban development in Manhattan stretched to 59th Street and there were streetcar tracks on most of the major avenues, from First to Eighth. Omnibuses were cheaper; streetcars were bigger, more comfortable, and moved on fixed tracks.

But in the 1830s and early 1840s, blacks couldn't use public transportation if any white passenger or the driver objected. Drivers carried whips and used them to keep blacks off. Threats of legal retaliation were laughed at.

Starting in the late 1840s, there were a few special omnibuses which blacks could ride. These buses had large signs on the back or in a side window reading "Colored Persons Allowed". But these omnibuses ran infrequently, irregularly, and often not at all.

On Sunday, 16 July 1854, Miss Jennings set off for the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was organist. As she was running late, she boarded a streetcar at the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets. The conductor ordered her to get off. When she refused, the driver and the conductor brutally attacked her. They called for the aid of a police officer, and Miss Jennings was ejected from the streetcar.

Horace Greeley's New York "Tribune" reported the incident:quote
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.

Miss Jennings did not accept this abuse. There was an organized movement among black New Yorkers to to end this discrimination, led by notables such as her father, Thomas, Rev. J. W. C. Pennington, and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Her story was publicized by Frederick Douglass, and received national attention.

Miss Jennings filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company. (The suit was filed in Brooklyn, where the Company 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:quote
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 Miss 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. A month later, a black man was kept off an 8th Avenue streetcar. He won a similar judgment. New York's public transit was fully desegregated by 1861.

Later life

Racism remained a major factor in New York life. During the American Civil War, the city was rocked by the New York Draft Riots of July 1863. Some rioters blamed the war on blacks, and lynched many black people. Jennings had by this time married Charles Graham, and had a one-year-old son, Thomas. Unfortunately, he was a sickly child, and died of convulsions during the riots. With the assistance of a white undertaker, the Grahams slipped through mob-infested streets and buried their child in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The funeral service was read by Rev. Morgan Dix of the prestigious Trinity Church on Wall Street.

Little more is known about her. In later years, Mrs. Graham lived at 247 West 41st Street, where she operated the city's first kindergarten for black children. She died in 1901.


*Cite journal
title=Pathfinders: The Schoolteacher's Stand
journal = American Legacy
issue = Summer 2006
pages = 12

*cite news
title = The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar
publisher = New York Times
date = 13 November 2005
url =http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/13/nyregion/thecity/13jenn.html?pagewanted=all
accessdate = 2008-09-24

*cite journal
last = Lovell
first = Judith C
title=Women’s History Month: Fighters for Justice in Transportation
issue = March 2005
pages = 7
publisher = MTA New York City Transit
url = http://retiree.nyct.com/newsletrs/ays0305.pdf
accessdate = 2008-09-24

*cite news
title = A Wholesome Verdict
publisher = New York Tribune
pages = 7:4
date = 23 February 1855

* cite web
title= Elizabeth Jennings
publisher = Columbia University
accessdate = 2008-09-24

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