African American Transportation History: Elizabeth Jennings Graham Fights and Wins a Battle for Desegregating New York City’s Streetcars

The place was New York City, and on Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings — a member of a prominent family in that city’s African American middle-class community — was on her way to the First Colored Congregational Church at Sixth Street and the Bowery to play the organ for a service there. Since she was running late, Jennings boarded a Third Avenue Railroad Company streetcar at Pearl Street and Chatham Street to get to the church a lot more quickly. That is when the trouble began for her.

At the time, most of New York City’s streetcars were racially segregated and it was all too easy for the operators of that means of public transit to refuse service to African Americans. This is why the conductor of that particular horse-drawn streetcar was emboldened on that summer morning to order Jennings to get off the vehicle. After she declined to do so, the conductor tried to forcefully remove her.

Jennings fiercely resisted, however. She stood firm by initially taking hold of a window frame in the streetcar and then grabbing part of the conductor’s jacket. It was not until a police officer came on board the streetcar to help the conductor that Jennings was pushed out onto the sidewalk with her bonnet damaged and her dress dirtied by the rough treatment. What subsequently took place was a high-stakes legal fight not only for Jennings’ own civil rights but also the unfettered access of African Americans to New York City’s streetcars.   

Up until that incident on a streetcar and the widespread publicity it attracted throughout the city, Jennings appears to have led a comparatively low-key existence. She had been born sometime between 1826 and 1830 (accounts vary). Her father Thomas L. Jennings (1792-1859), who was born a freeman in New York City, established himself as both a prosperous tailor and staunch abolitionist. He was granted a U.S. patent in 1821 for a new method for dry cleaning clothes, and he has been credited as the first black person to hold one of those patents in their own name.  

Elizabeth Jennings’ mother was Elizabeth Cartwright Jennings (1798-1873), who had been born an enslaved person in Delaware. Thomas L. Jennings used the proceeds from his patented dry-cleaning method to buy her freedom. Just like her husband, she became very active in civic affairs. Her contributions included penning a speech entitled “On the Improvement of the Mind,” which her daughter Elizabeth delivered in 1837 at a meeting of the Ladies Literary Society of New York. This speech emphasized the need for African American women to constantly pursue self-improvement in order to better their own lives and also more effectively combat slavery and discrimination.

Elizabeth Jennings did her best to live out the aspirations expressed in that speech written by her mother. She became strongly involved in several community and religious activities in New York City. By 1854, she was serving as not only a church organist but also a schoolteacher.

It was the controversy resulting from her attempt to ride on a streetcar in 1854, however, that placed her squarely in the public spotlight. “She got upon one of the company’s cars last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church,” asserted a February 1855 article in the nationally influential New-York Daily Tribune (originally called the New-York Tribune in 1841 and returning to that name in 1866). “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 . . .[He] took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted.”

This newspaper article further stated, “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 discriminatory treatment that Jennings had to endure galvanized many of the city’s African American residents to organize a large-scale protest against racial discrimination on streetcars. Those leading this charge included Reverend James W. C. Pennington (c. 1807-1870); Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882); and Jennings’ father. This streetcar incident was also extensively publicized by Frederick Douglass.

Along with his activism within the community, Thomas L. Jennings filed a lawsuit on behalf of his daughter against the Third Avenue Railroad Company. Elizabeth Jennings was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur. The attorney handling her case was Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886), the firm’s junior partner. More than a quarter-century later, Arthur became the 21st president of the United States.

The court ruled in favor of Jennings. She was awarded damages in the amount of $250.00, along with $22.50 in costs. Not long thereafter, the Third Avenue Railroad Company officially desegregated all of its streetcars. Jennings v. Third Ave. Railroad was a notable milestone for efforts to remove racial barriers in transportation, even though it would be another decade before New York City’s public transit services were fully desegregated.

In 1860, Jennings married Charles Graham (1830-1867). Their only child, Thomas J. Graham, died in 1863 at the age of one. In her later years, Elizabeth Jennings Graham lived on West 41st Street in New York City. It was in her home there that she founded and operated the city’s first kindergarten for African American children. Elizabeth Jennings Graham died on June 5, 1901. She was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in New York City with her husband and son.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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