Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

If the face of Elizabeth Jennings Graham ever appears on a U.S. dollar coin, part of the credit will go to Chester A. Arthur, the reluctant 21st president.

Arthur, as I recounted in a recent post, was a product of the New York Republican machine of the late 19th century. He was a successful candidate for vice president in 1880 only because the party needed an easterner to balance the ticket led by James A. Garfield of Ohio.

When Garfield was murdered and Arthur was vaulted into the presidency, no one was more shocked than Arthur himself. Although he was a decent man despite his connection  to the GOP machine, he wasn’t Mr. Ambition, and he did not have his sites set on the presidency.

Chester A. Arthur 2

Chester A. Arthur

He surprised many people, and at times dismayed his own party, by being not only a serious chief executive but something of a reformer—the most notable example being his successful call for a civil service system in which merit and not political connection determined who got public jobs.

Although he finishes low in the perennial polls that rank the presidents, he had some admirable qualities, and none more admirable than his unswerving opposition to slavery before and during the Civil War and his belief that black citizens should be afforded the same rights as white citizens—and that’s where Elizabeth Jennings Graham comes in.

Elizabeth Jennings was born in New York City in March 1830. Her father, Thomas, was a free black American, and her mother, Elizabeth, had been born in slavery and was an indentured servant during the period in which the State of New York gradually abolished human bondage. Thomas—a tailor and the first known black American to hold a patent in the United States (for a dry-cleaning process) was prosperous enough to buy his wife’s freedom.

Thomas Jennings

Thomas Jennings

Both parents were prominent members of the black community. The elder Elizabeth Jennings was a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, an organization established by black women who wanted to encourage self-improvement for black females. In 1834, she delivered an address, “On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds,” in which she stressed that black Americans must cultivate their minds if they did not want to remain subordinate to white people.

The younger Elizabeth Jennings was her mother’s daughter. She was well educated, and she became a teacher at the private African Free School, and then in the public schools, and a church organist. She was also a forerunner of Rosa Parks.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings was rushing to play the organ at the First Colored Congregational Church. At the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets, in her haste, she boarded a segregated horse-drawn streetcar operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company. The New York Tribune reported what happened next:

NYC streetcar

A New York City streetcar in the 19th century

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.

Elizabeth Jennings sued the driver, the conductor, and the railroad company. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, and the case was handled by the junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who was 24 years old.

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Arthur was successful. The three-day trial ended in Jennings’ favor: Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court said, in his charge to the jury, that “colored persons” who were sober, orderly, and free of disease, had the same rights as anyone else and, therefore, the company could not bar black people from its conveyances.

The jury also awarded Jennings damages in the amount of $250, which was a substantial amount of money in 1855. The day after the trial concluded, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its streetcars desegregated. In 1895, after the death of her husband, Charles Graham, Jennings, who had lived for a time in New Jersey, returned to Manhattan and established at her West 42nd Street home a kindergarten for black children; she operated it until her death in 1901.

Rev Pennington

Rev. James Pennington

Only a month after the Jennings trial, the Rev. James W.C. Pennington who, with Thomas Jennings, was active in a campaign to end discrimination on transit facilities—was prevented from boarding a whites-only car operated by the Eighth Avenue Railroad Company. Pennington also took legal action and won a judgment on appeal to the State Supreme Court. In 1865, New York’s public transportation system was finally fully desegregated—the culmination of a movement in which Chester A. Arthur had played a critical role.

 

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LOU GEHRIG

There’s a hilarious string of comments on the MSNBC web site stemming from a story about Lou Gehrig’s medical records. It’s entertaining to read these strings, because the readers who engage in them get upset and abusive – in this case, two of them sunk to assailing each other’s grammar – and then they get off on tangents and eventually go spinning off into space.

In this case, the brief story that started the row was about Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, who has introduced a bill that would open medical records after a person has been dead for 50 years, unless a will or a legal action by a descendant precludes it.

Kahn was inspired by a story that broke several months ago about a scientific study that speculated that the root cause of Gehrig’s death was concussions he suffered while playing baseball. Gehrig’s ailment, of course, was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

LOU GEHRIG

A study published last summer in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology made a connection between brain trauma and a form of ALS. Gehrig played first base, a position not usually associated with concussions, but he was hit in the head by pitches during his career, and he might have suffered head traumas in when he was the runner in a close play. He famously played for 14 years without missing a game, which means he played hurt many many times. In fact, although he is lionized for setting a record for consecutive games that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it, Gehrig was criticized in some quarters in his own time by folks who regarded his streak as a foolish stunt and worried that he would damage his health.

Researchers want to look at Gehrig’s medical records, which are housed at the Mayo Clinic, and Kahn thinks they should be allowed to do so – and that, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, the records of any person dead for 50 years should be accessible. Gehrig has no descendants

PHYLLIS KAHN

As a Lou Gehrig fan, my emotions are screaming, “Leave the big guy alone!” As a former journalist, my interest in free flow of information is muttering that such records should become available at some point — though I don’t know what that point should be. Considering the level of concern about concussion injuries in football, research in this area could be valuable, and Gehrig might have provided an almost unparalleled  opportunity to examine the impact of repeated injuries. His doctors might even have considered a link between his grueling career and the illness that killed him. The Mayo Clinic and a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota are opposing this bill, probably concerned more about the opening of a flood gate than about Gehrig’s privacy in particular.

Incidentally, Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat-Farm-Labor legislator, once pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing campaign brochures distributed on behalf of a Republican candidate and replacing them with material for one of Kahn’s DFL compatriots. But that’s a story for another post.

I am usually a proponent of the separation of church and state, agreeing wholeheartedly that both government and organized religions are better off if they keep their entanglements to a minimum.  I do like some common sense with my coffee, however, and I don’t find any in the case of Donna Kay Busch, the Pennsylvania woman who was barred from reading five verses from the 118th Psalm to her son’s kindergarten class.

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These are the verses, from the King James Version, that Mrs. Busch proposed to read:

O, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: because his mercy endureth forever. / Let Israel now say that his mercy endureth forever. / Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth forever. / Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth forever. / Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth foever. / … The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.

Mrs. Busch – an Evangelical Christian – said she chose these verses because they made no reference to Christianity. Here’s the explanation from the Christian Science Monitor:

The reading was to be part of an in-class assignment in which the children were invited to present important aspects of their lives to their classmates. As part of this “All About Me” week-long assignment, Busch’s son, Wesley, made a poster displaying photographs of himself, his hamster, his brothers, his parents, his best friend, and a construction-paper likeness of his church.

One part of the “All About Me” curriculum included inviting parents to “share a talent, short game, small craft, or story” with the class that would highlight something about their child. Busch said her son asked her to read the Bible to the class, an activity she and her son shared together at home.

Mrs. Busch told the kindergarten teacher in advance what she proposed to read, and the building principal objected to it on the grounds that reading a religious text to public-school children who were required to be present would amount to state-sponsored endorsement (“establishment”?) of one religion over others.

A federal judge and then a federal appeals court upheld the principal’s decision, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has, in effect, done the same by refusing to hear Mrs. Busch’s appeal.

I like a dissenting opinion from one of the appeals court judges who argued that the school had invited students and their families to participate in a program by expressing what they thought was important in their lives. Barring members of this family from expressing this particular aspect of their lives seems unfair, hypocritical, and overzealous. I wonder exactly what the school system and the courts thought would be the result if Mrs. Busch had read those verses to the kids? Which does more damage – reading a few verses of Hebrew scripture to children, perhaps with an explanation that Judaism and Christianity are two of many religions in the world, or pretending that a curriculum is preparing children to live in the wider world without educating them to the fact that religious expression is a major factor out there?

You can read the Monitor’s story on this case by clicking HERE.

KURT COBAIN

KURT COBAIN

Old Man Trouble can’t stay away from Kurt Cobain’s door. The huzzerai over the plaque honoring him in his hometown in Washington seems to have died down, but now there is a problem with how his image is used in the video game Guitar Hero 5.

Courtney Love, who was married to Cobain at the time of his death in 1994, gave Activision, the publisher of the game, permission to use Cobain’s image, but she says she did not know or agree that the avatar could be activated so as to sing other writers’ songs. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, Cobain’s Nirvana-mates, are also annoyed. Love says there will be legal action against Activision if the game isn’t altered so as to restrict the use of Cobain’s image to songs associated with him.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

SHIRLEY BOOTH

There have been similar blowups in the past, including one involving the great stage and screen actress Shirley Booth, who played the housemaid Hazel from 1961 to 1966 in a TV series based on Ted Key’s cartoon character by the same name. After the show left the air, in 1971, Key gave Colgate-Palmolive permission to use the Hazel image in a commercial for a detergent called Burst.

The sponsor or its ad agency hired an actress named Ruth Holden to provide the voice in the commercial, but the voice sounded exactly like Shirley Booth’s voice, as I recall myself. Anyone who was familiar with Booth and saw that commercial would have assumed the voice was hers.

Shirley Booth thought so, too. She sued the sponsor and its ad agency in federal court, but the court didn’t agree with her complaint.

For now, you can see the Kurt Cobain avatar and read a Christian Science Monitor blog about Courtney Love’s objections, both at this link:

http://features.csmonitor.com/innovation/2009/09/11/courtney-love-outraged-by-kurt-cobains-role-in-guitar-hero-5/

Under the burning cross

February 28, 2009

klan2I see by the papers that the Nebraska Supreme Court came down on the side of common sense this week by upholding the dismissal of a state police officer who joined a branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The subject of the ruling, Robert Henderson, joined the Knights Party in 2004 and resigned in 2006. He joined in the first place because his wife left him for a Latino man. Henderson, I gather, was not a student of logic. His defense contends that the court has brushed aside Henderson’s First Amendment rights – an interesting argument to make on behalf of a man whose own view of other folks’ rights is, to put it mildly, suspect. That, of course, wouldn’t justify mitigating his citizenship, but the state’s position isn’t that Henderson couldn’t belong to the Klan, but that he couldn’t belong to the Klan and be a sworn law-enforcement officer. Presumably, Nebraska also wouldn’t want a police officer to join a group that promotes pedophilia. The objection from his defense that Henderson strictly kept his racial views to himself while he was on duty somehow isn’t reassuring. One would rather that Henderson wore his hood on duty so that a black or Latino motorist stopped on a dark stretch of highway would know what and whom he was dealing with. This case isn’t done, and it might wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court where an argument either way from Justice Thomas could make for compelling reading.