Elizabeth Jennings Graham

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Elizabeth Jennings Graham, ca. 1895.

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827– June 5, 1901),[1] became a 19th-century African-American civil rights figure after she insisted on her right to ride on a New York City streetcar in 1854. Her case led to the eventual desegregation of New York City transit systems.

Early life[edit]

Graham was one of three children of Thomas L. Jennings, a successful tailor, the first known African-American holder of a United States patent and an influential member of 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[edit]

In the 1850s, the horse-drawn streetcar on rails became a more common 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 their owners and drivers could refuse service to any passengers.

On Sunday, July 16, 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.

The incident sparked an organized movement among black New Yorkers to end racial discrimination on streetcars, led by notables such as Jennings's father, Thomas, Rev. James 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, the court ruled 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 awarded Jennings damages in the amount of $225 (comparable to $5,000 to $10,000 in 2008 dollars), as well as $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, and won a similar judgment against that company. New York's public transit was fully desegregated by 1861.

Later life[edit]

Little is known about Jennings' later years. She married Charles Graham and had a son, Thomas J. Graham. He was a sickly child who died of convulsions at the age of one 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.

The Grahams moved to Eatontown, New Jersey where her mother and sister lived.[2] After Charles Graham's death, Elizabeth, along with her mother and sister, moved back to New York City.[3]

Elizabeth Jennings Graham lived her later years at 247 West 41st Street, where she operated the city's first kindergarten for black children. She died in 1901.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=88729004
  2. ^ 1870 Federal Census for Ocean Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey, page 154
  3. ^ Ancestry.com. Freedman's Bank Records, 1865-1871 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. Micropublication M816, 27 rolls.


  • Greider, Katherine. "Pathfinders: The Schoolteacher's Stand". American Legacy (Summer 2006): 12. 
  • "A Wholesome Verdict". New York Tribune. 23 February 1855. pp. 7:4.