Elizabeth Jennings Graham
In 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, an african-american teacher, insisted on her right to ride on a segregated New York City streetcar run by a private company. She was thrown off. A jury agreed she had that right in 1855, and it slowly led to the desegregation of New York City streetcars and other transit systems by 1865.
Born: March 1827
(Born as a Free African American)
Birthplace: New York State
Father: Thomas L. Jennings 1791-1856
Mother: Elizabeth Jennings 1798-1873
Husband: Charles Graham 1830–1867
(Buried: Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York)
Married: June 18, 1860 in Manhattan, New York
Thomas J. Graham 1862-1863
(Buried: Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York)
1854: Elizabeth is a school teacher at the African Free School in New York City
She is also an accomplished organist at the First Colored Congregational Church of New York
1854: Attempts to board a streetcar of the Third Avenue Railway Company on a Sunday while going to church. She is told by the Conductor that she might get thrown off if anyone objected to her being there, being that blacks were subject to segregation at that time. She insisted she had a right to use the streetcar, and tried to resist being thrown off, and is finally removed with the help of a policeman from the street.
1855: With the help of a young lawyer, Chester A. Arthur, she took the Third Avenue Railway Company to court. She wins the case even with an all white, all male jury. She is awarded $225 for damages, and $22.50 for court costs. On the next day, the Third Railway Company desegregated their lines.
1860: Elizabeth Marries Charles Graham
Civil War History:
1863: Elizabeth's first and only son, Thomas, dies at the age of one, and the family has to endure travelling through the New York Draft Riots to bury him.
As racial tensions increased in their home town, Elizabeth and her family moved to Monmouth County, New Jersey
1870: Moved back to New York City, New York with her Mother and sister Matilda
1895: Founded and operated New York City’s first kindergarten for black children in her own home
Died: June 5, 1901
Age at Death: 74 Years Old
Place of Death: In her home, New York City, New York
Burial Place: Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York
- “You shall go out or I’ll put you out.” -
Elizabeth Jennings Graham had a remarkable life and quite a tale to tell about “free blacks” living in the North in the years leading up to the Civil War. Her father Thomas L. Jennings (a free black man) was a successful and influential man and highly regarded in the African-American New York City Community. He would marry a woman, (named Elizabeth that had been born into slavery), by purchasing her freedom. Their daughter Elizabeth Jennings was born in March of 1827.
Her parents made sure she had an excellent education. Elizabeth Jennings's mother was a prominent woman known for penning the speech "On the Improvement of the Mind," which ten-year-old Elizabeth delivered at a meeting of the Ladies Literary Society of New York. The text concludes by stating: “It is by constant aiming at perfection in every thing, that we may at length attain it.” (Ref. #1)
She would later write that she informed the conductor - “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.” (Ref. #2)
In February 1855, as Horace Greeley would write in the New York Tribune describing the incident:
“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.” (Wikipedia)
She was not a person to be trifled with and with great support in the African-American community, in 1855, she would take the Third Avenue Railway Company to court. Her young lawyer was none other than future Union Civil War General and the 21st President of the United States - Chester A. Arthur.
Although young and inexperienced at age 24 - he won her case. Brooklyn Circuit Court Judge William Rockwell instructed the jury:
“under the law, colored persons, if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the right to ride the streetcars” and “could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.” (Ref. #4)
The all white male jury ruled in her favor and she was awarded $225 (for damages) and $22.50 (court costs) - approximately $6,000 - $8,000 - different sources have different inflation values. But more importantly, the day after the judgment came down the Third Railway Company desegregated their lines.
However, there were several different companies that operated in New York City, and they were not so quick to change their rules. By the time the Civil War started nearly all streetcars in New York City would be desegregated. It took almost 20 years before passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1875, enacted by the 43rd United States Congress, to: “to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights", giving them equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation, and to prohibit exclusion from jury service.” (Wikipedia)
Elizabeth Jennings would go on to marry Charles Graham in 1860, but her life would have struggles. She would give birth to her only child, a son names Thomas J. Graham, unfortunately the child died at one year of age as the result of convulsions. An undertaker helped the Graham family bury their child as the date was July 16, 1863 and New York City was embroiled in the Draft Riots.
In time they would leave New York and live in Monmouth County, New Jersey, as racial tensions were increasing in their home town. Her husband died in 1867 and in time Elizabeth her mother and sister Matilda moved back to New York City by 1870.
She founded and operated New York City’s first kindergarten for black children in her home. She died in 1901 at age 74. She was laid to rest in Cypress Hills Cemetery next to her beloved son and husband.
NYC - a street named in her honor where the incident happened.
5. Picture of young Chester A. Arthur - Wikipedia
- Hearth, Amy Hill. Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York. New York: HarperCollins/Greenwillow Books, 2018.
- Mikorenda, Jerry. America's First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
citation information The following information is provided for citations.
|Biographies of the Civil War, Elizabeth Jennings Graham|
|★ @DBF (Biography & Initial Research)|
★ Mike Kendra @CivilWarTalk (Profile, Layout, Obituary, Additional Research, Further Reading)
Original Published Date:
|September 29, 2020|
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