Elizabeth Jennings Graham

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Elizabeth Jennings Graham, ca. 1895.

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (March 1827 – June 8, 1901) was an African-American teacher and civil rights figure.

In 1854, Graham insisted on her right to ride on an available New York City streetcar, at a time when all such companies were private and most operated segregated cars. Her case was decided in her favor in 1855, and it led to the eventual desegregation of all New York City transit systems by 1865.

After the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, where there were numerous attacks against the black community, Graham and her husband Charles Graham left the city, moving to join her mother Elizabeth and sister Matilda Jennings in Eatontown, New Jersey. After his death 1867 Long Branch Monmouth, New Jersey, USA, she returned with her family to New York. Graham started the city's first kindergarten for black children, operating it from her home 237 41st Manhattan NYC in 1895-1901 School First Kindergarten Class for Black Children until her death in 1901.

Early life

Elizabeth Jennings was born free March 1830, one of the three children of Thomas L. Jennings (1792-1859) and his wife, also named Elizabeth (1798-1873).[1] He was a free black and she was born into slavery. He became a successful tailor, the first known African-American holder of a patent in the United States (his was granted by New York State in 1821), and an influential member of New York's black community. With fees from his patented dry-cleaning process, Thomas Jennings bought his wife's freedom, as she was considered an indentured servant until 1827 under the state's gradual abolition law of 1799.[2][3] Their daughter Elizabeth, then, was born free and received an education.

Elizabeth Jennings's mother was a prominent woman who is known for her speech "On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds". Elizabeth Jennings, Sr. was a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, which was founded in 1834.[4] The literary society was founded by New York's elite black women to promote self-improvement through community activities, reading and discussion.[5] This speech was produced and given in 1837, when the younger Elizabeth was still a young child. In her speech, Elizabeth Jennings, Sr. speaks about how the neglect of the cultivating mind will keep the blacks inferior to the whites. This will also have the whites/enemies believe that the blacks do not have any minds at all. Jennings believed the mind was very powerful and could help with the improvement to abolish slavery and discrimination. Therefore, she called upon black women to have a mind and take action. The importance of improving the mind was a consistent theme among elite black women.[6]

By 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, Jr. 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.

Jennings v. Third Ave. Railroad

In the 1850s, the horse-drawn streetcar on rails became a more common mode of transportation, competing with the horse-drawn omnibus in the city. (Elevated heavy rail, the next transportation mode in the city, did not go into service until 1869.) Like the omnibus lines, the streetcar lines were owned by private companies, and their owners and drivers could refuse service to any passengers. They enforced segregated seating.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings set off for the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was organist. As she was running late, she boarded a streetcar of the Third Avenue Railroad Company at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets. The conductor ordered her to get off. When she refused, the conductor tried to remove her by force. Eventually, with the aid of a police officer, Jennings was ejected from the streetcar.

Horace Greeley's New York Tribune commented on the incident in February 1855:

She got upon one of the 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 incident sparked an organized movement among black New Yorkers to end racial discrimination on streetcars, led by notables such as Jennings' father Thomas, Rev. James W.C. Pennington, and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Her story was publicized by Frederick Douglass in his newspaper, and received national attention.

Jennings filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company in Brooklyn, where Third Avenue was headquartered. This was one of four streetcar companies franchised in the city and had been in operation about one year. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur. Her case was handled by the firm's 24-year-old junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, future President of the United States.

In 1855, the court ruled in her favor. In his charge to the jury, Brooklyn Circuit Court Judge William Rockwell declared:

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.

The jury awarded Jennings damages in the amount of $250 (comparable to $6,000 to $10,000 in 2015 dollars), as well as $22.50 in costs. The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its cars desegregated.

The Jennings case was instrumental in establishing policy for what was a new service industry. A month after the verdict, Rev. Pennington was refused admission to a car of the Eighth Avenue Railroad, another of the first four companies. He won a similar judgment against that company when the case was appealed to the State Supreme Court. He was represented by the Legal Rights Association, founded by Thomas L. Jennings, Elizabeth's father.[7] After steps forward and back, a decade later in 1865, New York's public transit services were fully desegregated. The last case was a challenge by a black woman who was the widow of a United States Colored Troops soldier, a fact that won public support for her.[8]

Later life

Little is known about Jennings's later years. She married Charles Graham [1830-1867 Long Branch NJ] on [June 18, 1860 Manhattan NYC VOL #3] and had a son, Thomas J. Graham. He was a sickly child who died of convulsions at the age of one during the New York Draft Riots of July 16, 1863. With the assistance of a white undertaker, the Grahams slipped through mob-infested streets and buried their child in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. The funeral service was read by Rev. Morgan Dix of the Trinity Church on Wall Street.[9]

Like many other blacks after the riots, the Grahams moved out of Manhattan. They moved to Eatontown, New Jersey, where her mother and sister lived.[10] After her husband Charles died, Elizabeth, along with her mother Elizabeth and sister Matilda, moved back to New York City in the late 1860s or 1870.[11]

Elizabeth Jennings Graham lived her later years at 247 West 41st Street. She founded and operated the city's first kindergarten for black children in her home. She died in 1901 and was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery along with her son and her husband.[7]

See also



  1. Alexander, Leslie M. African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, (University of Illinois: 2008), pp. 125
  2. "African American Voting Rights", New York State Archives, accessed 11 February 2012
  3. "Exhibit: Slavery in New York". New York Historical Society. 7 October 2005 – 26 March 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. White, Deborah Gray; Bay, Mia; Martin Jr., Waldo E. (Dec 3, 2015). Freedom on my Mind: A History of African-Americans. Bedford/St.Martins. p. 299.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. White, Deborah Gray; Bay, Mia; Martin Jr., Waldo E. Freedom on my Mind: A History of African Americans. Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 299. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Alexander, Leslie M. African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, (University of Illinois: 2008), pp. 91.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Greider, Katherine (13 November 2005). "The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Volk, Kyle G. (2014). Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 148, 150-153, 155-159, 162-164. ISBN 019937192X.
  9. History.com
  10. 1870 Federal Census for Ocean Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey, page 154
  11. Ancestry.com. Freedman's Bank Records, 1865-1871 September 28, 1871 document Freedman's Bank Records list their residence 543 Broome St. NYC. [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. Micropublication M816, 27 rolls.


  • Alexander, Leslie M. African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, (University of Illinois: 2008), pp. 125–130
  • Greider, Katherine. "Pathfinders: The Schoolteacher's Stand". American Legacy (Summer 2006): 12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Greider, Katherine (13 November 2005). "The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lovell, Judith C. "Women's History Month: Fighters for Justice in Transportation" (PDF). AT YOUR SERVICE. MTA New York City Transit (March 2005): 7. Retrieved 2008-09-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "A Wholesome Verdict". New York Tribune. 23 February 1855. pp. 7:4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "Elizabeth Jennings". EARLY AFRICAN NEW YORK. Columbia University. Retrieved 2008-09-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>