An educator and civil rights icon, her precedential refusal to get off a segregated streetcar sparked the anti-racial movement among the African-American community.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham was born to free African-American parents. As a child, she received an education, which was rare for a young black girl in those days. At the age of 10, during a meeting of the Ladies Literary Society of New York – an elite black women organization promoting self-improvement – Jennings delivered a speech that her mother wrote, called “On the Improvement of the Mind,” encouraging black women to take action. When she grew up, Jennings became a schoolteacher at a private African Free School in NYC.
On Sunday, July 16th, 1854, 27 years old Jennings was on her way to the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was an organist. At the time, public transportation was owned by private companies, which enforced segregated seating. Running late, Jennings boarded a white passenger-only streetcar at the corner of Pearl Street and Chatham Street. The conductor ordered her to get off, and when she refused to do so, the conductor, with the aid of a police officer, forced her out. After the incident, she published a letter in the New York Tribune, describing her experiences of the event. The letter received national attention and inspired the African-American community in NYC to establish a movement to end racial discrimination on streetcars.
Jennings and her father filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor, and the railroad company, they won the case and was received $225 in damages. Though the case did not prevent future incidents of discrimination in public transportation, Jennings’s actions challenged the segregation policy in New York and encouraged others to file lawsuits in similar cases.
At 33, Elizabeth Jennings married Charles Graham, and they had a son who died when he was only one year old, during the New York Draft Riots. After the riots, the African-American community suffered numerous attacks, and the Grahams’ left Manhattan to live with Jennings’ sister in New Jersey. When she returned to NYC, Jennings founded and operated the first kindergarten for black children in the city. She died on June 5th, 1901.
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- Her father bought her mother’s freedom.
- Her father, Thomas L. Jennings, was the first African-American holder of a patent in the US.
- The lawyer who handled her case in court was the 24-year-old future 21st US president, Chester A. Arthur.
- She was later called the NYC Rosa Parks.
- New York City co-named “Elizabeth Jennings Place” at the corner of Spruce Street and Park Row, after a campaign by children from a nearby elementary school.
- During 2021 a statue of her will be placed next to Grand Central Terminal.