Years ago, while doing research on black history, I came across a phenomenal woman who back in 1855 forever changed the private streetcar system in New York. Before Elizabeth could take on the railcar system she first had to be born. Elizabeth Jennings was born free in March 1827. While her father was a Freeman and Elizabeth was born free, her mother, Elizabeth Cartwright was born enslaved. Elizabeth’s father was a successful tailor, who was later identified to be the earliest black person known to have a U.S. Patent in his own name. In 1821, he was awarded a patent from the U.S. government for developing dry scouring, a new method to dry clean clothing, and used the proceeds to buy his families freedom.
Elizabeth Cartwright Jennings, her mother, was a prominent woman in the community. She is known for "On the Improvement of the Mind," a speech that her daughter delivered at a meeting of the Ladies Literary Society of New York (founded 1834). The literary society was founded by New York's elite black women to promote self-improvement through community activities, reading, and discussion.
By 1854, Jennings had become a schoolteacher and church organist. She taught at the city's private African Free School, which had several locations by this time, and later in the public schools. 1854, is where Elizabeth’s troubles began. Elizabeth the organist was late for church and insisted on riding a private railcar. During this time most of the streetcar systems were not only private but were also segregated. Graham insisted on her right to ride on an available streetcar at the corner of Pearl St. and Chatman St. After boarding the streetcar Graham was told to exit. When Graham refused the conductor tried to forcibly remove her from the car. The driver refused to leave until Graham was off the streetcar. The incident caused such a scene that it drew a large crowd. The crowd looked on as Elizabeth was manhandled by the conductor and the police who eventually ejected her from the car but not before they ensured that she was embarrassed and mistreated.
Although Graham was not arrested, her maltreatment sparked an organized movement among black New Yorkers to end racial discrimination on streetcars. Her story was published by Frederick Douglas in his newspaper and received national attention from many Ministers calling for an end to segregated streetcars. On behalf of Jennings, mistreatment her father filed a lawsuit against the Third Ave. Railway Company, the driver, and the conductor. The company was one of only four franchised for use in the city. Graham was represented by the firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, and the case was thought to be unwinnable. The attorney representing Graham was the 24- year old, Junior Partner, Chester A. Arthur, who later became President of the United States. It is said that this case sparked Arthur’s interest in politics.
Her case was decided in her favor in 1855, by an all-white jury. In the findings, Judge Rockwell ruled that “Colored persons if sober, well-behaved, and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could not be excluded by the rule of the company, by force or violence.”
This case was important not only because of the findings of the judge but also because it was a jury trial, and the jury award Elizabeth damages that today would have been the equivalent to thousands. The Third Ave. Railroad Company desegregated the next day but this did not force the other companies to follow suit. Because of Elizabeth’s case, activists including her father formed the Legal Rights Association who fought for the desegregation of transit systems. Using the Graham case as a precedent, they eventually were successful in desegregating the entire New York City transit system in 1865.
Graham led a quiet life after the streetcar incident and went on to open the city’s first kindergarten for African-American children which she operated until her death in 1901.
So, the next time the subject of the Civil Rights movement comes up and people immediately go on to talk about Martin, Malcolm, or Rosa share with them the unknown story of Elizabeth Jennings- Graham. The little church organist from New York City that single-handedly desegregated the Transit System.