Marking Black History Month, UK (October 1-October 31) face2face Africa, takes a look at a shining woman who refused to be bullied.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham (March 1827 – June 5, 1901) was an African-American teacher and civil rights figure who 100 years before Rosa Park defied the order of a conductor to disembark from the horse-drawn carriage (trolley) she was on headed for church.
The driver failing to remove her called a police man who pushed her out but Ms. Graham instead of being quiet about an injustice in 1854 sued and was awarded $250 as damages with the ruling that African-Americans could not be excluded from New York (NY) trolleys helping with the eventual desegregation of NY trolleys.
Her feat is significant as the New York City companies were private and mostly operated segregated cars. Her case was decided in her favour in 1855, and it led to the eventual desegregation of all New York City transit systems by 1865.
Graham is also credited with starting the city’s first kindergarten for African-American children, operating it from her home on 247 West 41st Street until her death in 1901. In 2007, New York City co-named a block of Park Row “Elizabeth Jennings Place”. There is also talk New York City would build a statue honoring Graham near Grand Central Terminal.
Elizabeth Jennings was born free in March 1827. Her parents, Thomas L. Jennings (1792-1859) and his wife, also named Elizabeth (1798-1873) had at least five children. Her father was a free Black while her mother was born into slavery. He became a successful tailor and an influential member of New York’s black community, emerging the first known African African-American holder of a patent in the United States for developing dry scouring, a new method to clean clothing. Thomas Jennings eventually bought his wife’s freedom.
By 1854, Elizabeth Jennings had become a schoolteacher and church organist teaching at the city’s private African Free School.
On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings running late for church where she is an organist boarded a streetcar of the Third Avenue Railroad Company at the corner of Pearl Street and Chatham Street but the conductor claimed the streetcar was full, when it emerged he was lying he claimed the whites did not like Jennings’ presence but the resolute Jennings was not having any of that racist attitude so the ‘conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person before recruiting a policeman to succeeded in removing her.
Her story received national attention getting a feature in Frederick Douglass’ newspaper. Jennings’ father filed a lawsuit (on behalf of his daughter) against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company in Brooklyn, where the Third Avenue Company was headquartered.
She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur. In 1855, the court ruled in her favour. 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.”
Elizabeth Jennings married Charles Graham (1830-1867) of Long Branch, New Jersey on June 18, 1860 in Manhattan. They had a son, Thomas J. Graham he however being sickly died a year later. Her husband Charles died in 1867.
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 on June 5, 1901 at the age of 74. Cypress Hills Cemetery holds her remains as well as her son and husband.