Americans are all familiar with the story of Rosa Parks, who, on Thursday, December 1, 1955, refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white passenger. Similar acts of civil disobedience had taken place prior to that including Irene Morgan in 1944, Sarah Louise Keys in 1953, and young Claudette Colvin earlier in 1955 on the very same bus system as Rosa Parks.
But, did you know that a full century before Rosa Parks' courageous stand, another African-American woman took a similar stand when she was ejected from a privately owned streetcar in downtown Manhattan on the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets? Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jennings brought a civil suit against the streetcar company and was represented by a future president. Her attorney successfully argued the case that was the beginning of the desegregation of public transportation in New York City.
|Above: Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Jennings
Lizzie Jennings was born in 1830. Her father was a businessman, and Lizzie grew up to become a schoolteacher. In the mid-1800's, the most widely used method of public transportation in the city was the horse-drawn streetcar. They were owned and operated by private companies, and the owners or drivers could refuse to serve any passengers they wished to. That being the case, many refused to allow black passengers to get on board.
Jennings' minister, the Reverend J.W.C. Pennington, had been speaking from the pulpit against these practices. Lizzie took it upon herself to see what would happen if she dared to board a streetcar that was not designated as "Colored Persons Allowed."
On a midsummer's day in 1854, July 16, Miss Jennings waited at the aforementioned corner to board a horse-drawn bus to take her to Sunday worship services where she was the organist for her church. In Pre-Civil War New York City, although slavery had been abolished there by 1799, elements of segregation still existed, and black residents could generally only ride buses bearing big "Colored Persons Allowed" signs. Black people could only ride a bus without such a sign at the discretion of the driver. Drivers on those unmarked buses often carried whips to keep off anyone they deemed undesirable.
The New York Tribune reported the Jennings incident in a February 1855 article: "She got upon one of the [Third Avenue Railway] Company's cars last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was 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 by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her."
The next day, Jennings told her story to the members of her church, who immediately held a large demonstration denouncing the actions of the bus driver. It should be noted that Jennings came from a relatively well-off family where her father was an important community leader and, as a tailor who owned his own shop, held a patent on a method for renovating garments.
Jennings secured the services of the law firm of Culver, Parker & Arthur to argue her case in court. Chester A. Arthur, the then-25-year-old junior partner who argued the case for Miss Jennings, would go on to become the 21st President of the United States in 1881, finishing out the term of the assassinated James Garfield.
In 1855, the year following the incident, in a decision rendered by Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court, Lizzie Jennings won her case against the Third Avenue Railway Company. The judge stated that, "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." Miss Jennings was awarded $22.50 in court costs, and an additional $225 in damages (out of the $500 that she claimed). The following day, the railway company ordered all their drivers to allow black passengers on their buses. Within five years of Jennings' celebrated lawsuit, all streetcars in the city were desegregated.
In July 1863, Lizzie Jennings, by then Lizzie Graham, suffered a tragic loss when, during the rioting and chaos caused by an angry white mob following a resolution that allowed wealthy New Yorkers to buy their way out of the Civil War draft, her young son was among 70 black people lynched.
Lizzie Jennings Graham lived to be over 70 years old and died in 1901. Almost exactly 100 years after the Jennings incident, Rosa Parks stood up for her rights in Montgomery, Alabama in much the same way. We salute Lizzie Jennings and Rosa Parks as we celebrate Black History Month.