Elizabeth Jennings Graham

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Elizabeth Jennings Graham, ca. 1895.

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827– June 5, 1901), was an African-American teacher and church organist; as a young woman, she became noted as a 19th-century civil rights figure after insisting on her right to ride on an available New York City streetcar in 1854, at a time when all such companies were private and most operated segregated cars. Her case was decided in her favor in 1855, and it led to the eventual desegregation of all New York City transit systems by 1865.

After the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, where there were numerous attacks against the black community, Graham and her husband left the city, moving to join her mother and sister in Eatontown, New Jersey. After his death, she returned with her family to New York. Graham started the city's first kindergarten for black children, operating it from her home.

Early life[edit]

Elizabeth Jennings was born free in 1827, one of three children of Thomas L. Jennings and his wife. He was a free black and she was born into slavery. He became a successful tailor, the first known African-American holder of a patent in the United States (his was granted by New York State in 1821), and an influential member of New York's black community. With fees from his patented dry-cleaning process, Thomas Jennings bought his wife's freedom, as she was considered an indentured servant until 1827 under the state's gradual abolition law of 1799.[1][2] Elizabeth was born free and received an education.

By 1854, Elizabeth Jennings had become a schoolteacher and church organist. She taught at the city's private African Free School, which had several locations by this time, 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 transportation 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. They enforced segregated seating.

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' father Thomas, Rev. James W.C. Pennington, and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Her story was publicized by Frederick Douglass in his newspaper, 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. This was one of four streetcar companies franchised in the city and had been in operation about one year. 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 Jennings case was instrumental in establishing policy for what was a new service industry. A month after the verdict, Rev. Pennington was refused admission to a car of the Eighth Avenue Railroad, another of the first four companies. He won a similar judgment against that company when the case was appealed to the State Supreme Court. He was represented by the Legal Rights Association, founded by Thomas Jennings, Elizabeth's father.[3] After steps forward and back, a decade later in 1865, New York's public transit services were fully desegregated. The last case was a challenge by a black woman who was the widow of a United States Colored Troops soldier, a fact that won public support for her.[4]

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.

Like many other blacks after the riots, the Grahams moved out of Manhattan. They moved to Eatontown, New Jersey, where her mother and sister lived.[5] After her husband Charles died, Elizabeth, along with her mother and sister, moved back to New York City in the late 1860s or 1870.[6]

Elizabeth Jennings Graham lived her later years at 247 West 41st Street. She founded and operated the city's first kindergarten for black children in her home. She died in 1901 and was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery.[3]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "African American Voting Rights", New York State Archives, accessed 11 February 2012
  2. ^ "Exhibit: Slavery in New York". New York Historical Society. 7 October 2005 to 26 March 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ a b Greider, Katherine (13 November 2005). "The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  4. ^ Volk, Kyle G. (2014). Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 148, 150-153, 155-159, 162-164. ISBN 019937192X.
  5. ^ 1870 Federal Census for Ocean Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey, page 154
  6. ^ 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.


Sources[edit]

  • Alexander, Leslie M. African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, (Chicago: 2008), pp. 125-130
  • Greider, Katherine. "Pathfinders: The Schoolteacher's Stand". American Legacy (Summer 2006): 12. 
  • "A Wholesome Verdict". New York Tribune. 23 February 1855. pp. 7:4.