An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Sep 9, 2018 by

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Elizabeth Jennings Graham was somewhat of an iconic figure in New York City. She apparently was going to church and attempted to use the public transportation system at that time. What happened?

In 1854, an African-American woman named Elizabeth Jennings served as the organist at the First Colored Congregational Church in New York City. According to accounts of the time, she found herself running late, and decided to ride a horse-drawn streetcar to save time. When she attempted to board the streetcar, however, the conductor ordered her to leave the vehicle.

He defended his action on the grounds that his employer, the Third Avenue Railroad Company, embraced the principle of segregation. Jennings refused to comply with his demand, choosing instead to remain on board. Try as he might, the conductor could not budge her.

Finally, with help from a New York City policeman, the two manage to forcibly evict her from the streetcar. This incident caused an immediate outcry from the African-American populace in New York City, and even drew a mention in the newspaper that the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass operated.

In spite of the outrage, little would most likely have come from this occurrence had not Elizabeth had an influential father. Born free in New York in 1792, Thomas Jennings had become a successful businessperson through his invention of a dry cleaning process (for which he received a patent, thus becoming the first African-American to achieve that distinction).

Learning of the treatment that his daughter had received from the Third Avenue Railroad Company, he brought suit against that company in 1855. Because the Third Avenue Railroad Company had its headquarters in Brooklyn, the trial took place there. To represent Elizabeth Jennings, the law firm her father had retained sent a promising young lawyer named Chester Arthur to litigate the case (26 years later, Arthur would become the 21st president of the United States).

After the two sides argued their cases, a jury ruled in favor of Elizabeth Jennings. Based on this decision, the Third Avenue Railroad Company immediately decided to integrate its streetcars.

Over the next decade, every other streetcar company in New York City chose to follow suit.

2. Let’s delve into her childhood and the time frame in which she grew up.

One almost has to understand what was going on in her culture during that time period. Historians are not sure of the specific date of the birth of Elizabeth Jennings (who would take Charles Graham’s last name when she married him in 1860). In fact, estimates of the year of her birth vary from 1826 to 1830. They do agree, however, that she was born in New York City.

At that point in time, the state of New York had not fully abolished the institution of slavery within its borders. Indeed, the mother of Elizabeth Jennings had not gained her freedom until Elizabeth’s father bought and freed her. Her mother’s status became a moot point in July of 1827, when the state finally abolished slavery. Freeing slaves did not mean that prejudice and discrimination immediately ended in the Empire State, however, and thus during her formative years Elizabeth Jennings did not always enjoy the same privileges that whites did.

Her decision to remain on the streetcar in 1854 thus represents a true act of courage on her part, because she fully knew what might happen to her.

3. After she, in a sense, made a name for herself and was a precursor to others in the realm of civil rights, what were some of her other endeavors?

If she had only resisted the demand of the streetcar operator to leave his vehicle, the life of Elizabeth Jennings would have meaning. After her legal triumph, however, she did something else that does her memory lasting credit. At the time of the streetcar incident, Elizabeth Jennings taught at the African Free School in New York City, and she remained committed to the teaching profession for the rest of her life.

In 1895, although quite old by the standards of the time, she decided to open a kindergarten in her home for African-American children. She ran this school (the first kindergarten in New York City to accept African-American children) until her death in 1901.

4. We often talk about a “ripple effect” in history. In your mind, what were some of the ramifications and repercussions of her event?

In some respects, Elizabeth Jennings Graham stands as a nineteenth century equivalent of Rosa Parks.

 Both refused to comply with the request of a public transit operator, and both found themselves removed from the vehicle. The major differences between the two stems from the results that came from their acts of defiance. Graham clearly started a process of desegregation that had a localized effect.

Parks, on the other hand, started a movement that continues to this day. This illustrates an important point about societal change—a movement cannot succeed if it is too far in advance of cultural norms.

5. What have I neglected to ask?

While the life of Elizabeth Jennings Graham demonstrates the progress that the United States made in the realm of Civil Rights, it also illustrates that our progress has not happened along a linear path. Eight years after her legal triumph, she and her husband had to flee New York City to avoid the violence against African-Americans that the New York Draft Riot had unleashed in July of 1863. We should therefore recognize that progress happens in fits and starts, and with occasional regressions. But yet her life illustrates that one person can take a courageous stand and help to make a difference, even if it takes time to see the progress made.

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