Elizabeth Jennings Graham


Elizabeth Jennings Graham

A century before Rosa Parks stood her ground on a public bus in Alabama, a young African-American school teacher on her way to church fought against being forced off of a Manhattan streetcar for being “colored.”

Tossed onto the street by two men, her dress soiled, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, 24, took the streetcar company to court and won. The legal ruling led to the desegregation of New York City transit services in 1865.

Graham was born into freedom in Manhattan to a family active in the church and the abolitionist movement.

Until 1865, the New York City transit system, privately run, was largely segregated. Under common practice, African Americans were allowed to ride only so long as no white passengers objected.

“I told him,” Jennings wrote, “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.”

On July 16, 1854, late for church, Jennings and a friend hailed the Third Avenue horse-drawn streetcar. The conductor balked at their boarding, then let Jennings on so long as white passengers didn’t object. Changing his mind, the conductor called on a police officer to help him eject Jennings, who refused, grabbing onto the trolley window. The two men threw Jennings onto the street, where a crowd had gathered.

Filled with outrage, Jennings wrote a letter about her experience. The letter was read out loud at church the next day, then forwarded to two newspapers and published. The family took the issue to court, where the judge ruled in her favor, deciding that“colored persons if sober, well behaved, and free from disease” could not be refused on public transportation.

Jennings later married and taught at public schools. In her later years, she founded, in her home, the city’s first kindergarten for African-American children.

The father of Elizabeth Jennings, Thomas Jennings, a prominent tailor, was the first African American to receive a patent, in 1821 for a dry-cleaning process he termed “dry scouring.”

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