On a hot July morning in 1854, Elizabeth Jennings (still just Jennings, before her marriage to Charles Graham) and her friend, Sarah Adams, ran to catch the horse-drawn streetcar at Pearl Street and Chatham Square. The two were late for services at the First Colored Congregational Church, where Jennings was the organist. With no time to wait for a designated car displaying a large “Colored Persons Allowed” placard in its rear window, the young women boldly climbed aboard a Third Avenue Railroad Company streetcar, with any such sign noticeably absent. As Jennings firmly held her organ music in one hand and her hat in place with the other, she stepped across a threshold into a little-known piece of Lower Manhattan’s history and America’s journey towards civil rights.
What happened next was recorded in Horace’s Greeley’s New York Tribune as such:
“The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that 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 to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person.”
Jennings filled in the details in a letter that was read aloud the next day at a rally on her behalf at the Congregational Church.
“I told him not to lay his hands on me; he took hold of me and I took hold of the window sash and held on; he pulled me until he broke my grasp and I took hold of his coat and held onto that (but previously he had dragged my companion out, she all the while screaming for him to let go).” “. . .The conductor said, ‘You shall sweat for this;’ then told the driver to drive as fast as he could and not to take another passenger in the car; to drive until he saw an officer or a Station House.”
The Tribune article ends, “Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman, they succeeded in removing her.”
Jennings’ physical prowess was surpassed only by her tenacity for justice. With financial assistance and support from her family and an outraged African American community, she filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor and the Third Avenue Railroad Company in Brooklyn. Thomas Jennings, a successful businessman and tireless abolitionist, hired the white law firm of Culver, Parker and Arthur to represent his daughter.
The 24-year-old junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, was handed “Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad Company” as one of his first cases. Of course, Jennings had no way of knowing that she was being represented by the future 21st President of the United States. Against prevailing opinion, an all-white male jury remarkably ruled in her favor and awarded Jennings $250 in damages. She had asked for $500, but according to the Tribune, “Some jury members had peculiar notions as to colored people’s rights.”
The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company directed its drivers to allow African Americans on all of its cars. By 1861, all public transit in New York City had been desegregated.
One hundred years later, an African American woman sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, defied the driver’s order to give up her seat to a white passenger. In the spirit of Elizabeth Jennings, Rosa Parks stood her ground, no longer willing to accept less than equality.
And now, high on a pole at the corner of Park Row and Spruce, across the street from City Hall Park, rests a partially obstructed street sign which reads “Elizabeth Jennings Place.”
It wasn’t until 2007, after a group of 3rd and 4th grade students from P.S.361 on the Lower East Side took up the cause, that the sign honoring Elizabeth Jennings was authorized. Without fanfare or even quiet recognition, it now proudly oversees the bus stop below, as people—people of all colors—board their buses.
—Twylla Alexander is a writer who lives in Lower Manhattan, a block away from Elizabeth Jennings Place. A lover of early American history, she uncovers fascinating stories right outside her door. More of her writing can be found at her blog, New York City Reflections.