The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar
AS the civil rights figure Rosa Parks lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda two weeks ago, her 19th-century Northern forerunner, a young black schoolteacher who helped integrate New York's transit system by refusing to get off a streetcar in downtown Manhattan, rested in near-perfect obscurity.
Mrs. Parks's resistance on a bus became a central facet of American identity, a parable retold with each succeeding class of kindergartners. But who has ever heard of Elizabeth Jennings?
The disparity is largely an accident of timing. Thanks to television, Americans around the country became a witness to events in 1955 Montgomery, Ala.; by contrast, Jennings's supporters had to rely on a burgeoning but still fragmented mid-19th-century press. By 1955, when Parks refused to be unseated, segregation was emerging as an issue the nation could not ignore. When Jennings, 24, made her stand, on July 16, 1854, the first eerie rebel yell had yet to rise from a Confederate line. Segregation was a local or perhaps a regional story. It was slavery that was tearing the nation apart.
If Elizabeth Jennings was ahead of her time, she was also, on that midsummer Sunday, running late. She was due at the First Colored American Congregational Church on Sixth Street near the Bowery, where she was an organist. When she and her friend Sarah Adams reached the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets, she didn't wait to see a placard announcing, "Negro Persons Allowed in This Car." She hailed the first horse-drawn streetcar that came along.
As soon as the two black women got on, the conductor balked. Get off, he insisted. Jennings declined. Finally he told the women they could ride, but that if any white passengers objected, "you shall go out ... or I'll put you out."
"I told him," Jennings wrote shortly after the incident, that "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."
The 8 or 10 white passengers must have stared. Replying that he was from Ireland, the conductor tried to haul Jennings from the car. She resisted ferociously, clinging first to a window frame, then to the conductor's own coat. "You shall sweat for this," he vowed. Driving on, with Jennings's companion left at the curb, he soon spotted backup in the figure of a police officer, who boarded the car and thrust Jennings, her bonnet smashed and her dress soiled, to the sidewalk.
But, like Mrs. Parks a century later, Elizabeth Jennings had her own backup. She had grown up among a small cadre of black abolitionist ministers, journalists, educators and businessmen who stood up for their community as whites harshly reasserted the color line in the decades after New York had abolished slavery in 1827. Her father, Thomas L. Jennings, was a prominent tailor who helped found both a society that provided benefits for black people and the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which later moved to Harlem.
The daughter had worked in black schools co-founded by a "conductor" of the Underground Railroad. Her own church - First Colored American - was a place of learning and political rebellion, where, one evening in 1854, addresses on God and the Bible alternated with talks on "The Duty of Colored People Towards the Overthrow of American Slavery" and "Elevation of the African Race."
After the incident aboard the streetcar, Jennings took her story to this extended family. Her letter detailing the incident was read in church the next day; supporters forwarded the letter to The New York Daily Tribune, whose editor was the abolitionist Horace Greeley, and to Frederick Douglass' Paper, which both reprinted it in full. Meanwhile, her father made contact with a young white lawyer named Chester Arthur.
Arthur, who would go on to become president upon the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, was at the time a beginner in his 20's only recently admitted to the bar. He nevertheless won the case, against the Third Avenue Railway Company; a judge ruled that "colored persons if sober, well behaved, and free from disease" could not be excluded from public conveyances "by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence," according to newspaper reports. "Our readers will rejoice with us" in the "righteous verdict," remarked Frederick Douglass' Paper.
NEW YORK before the Civil War resembled the Jim Crow South of Rosa Parks's era in at least this respect: A pervasive racial caste system decreed that a great deal of space - in schools, restaurants, workplaces and churches - was strictly off-limits to African-Americans. The city's transit system, in its infancy, was a particularly bitter proving ground.
In the 1830's, when the first omnibus routes were established, the newspaper The Colored American told black New Yorkers, "Brethren, you are MEN - if you have not horses and vehicles of your own to travel with, stay at home, or travel on foot" rather than be "degraded and insulted" on city coaches. But by the time Elizabeth Jennings boarded the streetcar at Chatham and Pearl Streets, the avenues churned with horse-powered public transportation, and the city stretched far beyond 42nd Street, a long way to walk.
Jennings's legal victory did not complete integration of city transit. But blacks actively tested her precedent, in part through the Legal Rights Association, which her father founded for that purpose. In 1859, another case brought by that group resulted in a settlement, and by the following year nearly all the city's streetcar lines were open to African-Americans.
And Elizabeth Jennings? The details of her life have been told most painstakingly by John H. Hewitt, who, in his 1990 study in the journal New York History, reported that he had not uncovered a single biography of the woman, "not even a thumbnail sketch."
But a few things he did learn. She kept teaching. She married a man named Charles Graham. During the 1863 draft riots, when largely Irish rioters vented their rage at a new conscription law on the black people who were their most direct competitors for jobs and homes, Elizabeth and her husband were likely at home on Broome Street, bent over their ailing year-old son, Thomas. According to his death certificate, the child died of "convulsions," perhaps a last manifestation of one of the infectious diseases that sent urban death rates soaring in those years. While the city was reeling in the aftermath of its worst street melee yet, the couple were laying their son's small body to rest in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
As an older woman, Elizabeth Jennings Graham established, on the first floor of her house at 237 West 41st Street, the city's first kindergarten for black children. The children made art; they planted roots and seeds in the garden. "Love of the beautiful will be instilled into these youthful minds," read an article on the school.
It was there, too, that the woman who boarded the streetcar at Chatham and Pearl Streets died. The year was 1901. She was buried in Cypress Hills, near her son, and a few thousand Union dead.