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.

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.




Somewhere in this home office there is a 78 rpm recording of Jack Kaufman singing “Lucky Lindy” and “Lindbergh, the Eagle of the USA.” The record was part of the hype that followed Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. If a female aviator were going to be cast as Lindbergh’s counterpart, there was only one thing about Amelia Earhart that qualified her: She vaguely resembled the pilot. Where flying acumen was concerned, there were numerous women whose experience, skills, and breadth of knowledge far exceeded Earhart’s. As it turned out, that didn’t matter. Earhart had “the look” — or, at least, enough people thought so to make her marketable as “Lady Lindy,” and so, she became the legend and the other women are forgotten by all but students of aviation history. Some things never change.

I read about that in “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon,” by Kathleen C. Winters.

Amelia Earhart and George Putnam

Winters, who died last August, was an aviation historian, biographer of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and a licensed pilot. In short, she knew a lot about flying and her knowledge gives this book important context. I think it was because of her respect for flying that she took an unfiltered look at Earhart and presented her in what for many readers, including me, is a new light. Not that Winters went after Earhart; on the contrary, she seems to have recognized Earhart’s basic decency and approved of Earhart’s sense of adventure and her independence, her part in the campaign to promote commercial air travel, and especially her insistence and practical demonstrations that women were capable of undertakings once thought the sole province of men.

But Winters shows in some detail that Earhart was undisciplined, sometimes even careless, and that she wouldn’t take responsibility for her mistakes. But although there could have been no Amelia Earhart legend without Amelia Earhart’s cooperation, the magician who created the phantom heroine was Earhart’s husband, George Putnam.

1928 advertisement

Putnam, an opportunistic book publisher at the time, played a critical role in booking Earhart as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean — a year after Lindbergh’s solo flight. Earhart flew, all right, but she never took the controls, because she was incapable of handling the sea plane that made the flight and because she hadn’t learned to fly by instruments alone — something that could, and did, become necessary over the ocean. A two-man male crew handled the flight and Earhart was “baggage,” as she herself said. But Putnam created so much publicity — much of it exaggerated or just plain false — that Earhart became permanently larger than life, certainly larger than reality. Putnam, who eventually left his wife and married Earhart, also managed the rest of her career, encouraging her in a series of risky and often pointless performances and booking her in never-ending schedule of public appearances that financed the couple’s flamboyant lifestyle.

Amelia Earhart after her own solo transatlantic flight in 1932 - 1700 miles shorter than Lindy's.

It’s symbolic of Putnam’s whole approach to Earhart’s career that he signed her, over her objections, to appear in a print ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, although Earhart did not smoke. The ad didn’t say she smoked, but the implication was clear. What Putnam didn’t anticipate was a strong negative push-back from a public — particularly a female public — that didn’t approve of women smoking.

Earhart was charming, and she did set some speed and distance records, but her indelible place in the public consciousness was based on Putnam’s manufactured image — and on her disappearance in 1937 while she and navigator Fred Noonan were over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to fly around the world along the equator — a feat that would have had virtually no significance in aviation by that time. Winters points out that Earhart still had limited understanding of radio operation and that neither she nor Noonan knew Morse code. A naval vessel — in a typically improper use of public resources to support Earhart’s private escapades — was trying to monitor Earhart’s approach to tiny Howland Island where a landing strip had been constructed for her at public expense. The crew couldn’t keep contact with the flyer, and all indications are that she and Noonan couldn’t spot the minuscule island or wandered off course and wound up in the ocean. Bone fragments discovered late last year on a Pacific island are being examined for any connection to Earhart. Winters notes a melancholy detail: An experienced flyer encouraged Earhart to have the rudders and wing strips of her Lockheed painted red so that it would be easier to spot if it went down. Earhart liked the plane’s paint job fine just as it was.

Hilary Swank and Richard Gere as Amelia Earhart and George Putnam in the 2009 film "Amelia"

“Don’t tread on me”

November 18, 2009


Sarah Palin was non-committal when Barbara Walters asked, in the interview being broadcast this week, whether Palin wanted to run for the presidency. That, Palin said, is not on her radar at present, but she she cautioned that she could not predict what might happen between now and 2012. Presumably, that was a reference to that year’s national election and not to the revolution of the Mayan calendar.

If Palin does decide to seek office again, she should ask to be mentored by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who has served two terms as president of Latvia. Perhaps on a global scale that is analogous to having been governor of Alaska from the perspective of Americans. But don’t be fooled by the relative obscurity of Freiberga’s venue. She is a force to be reckoned with and a role model for women who believe that half the population should hold half the power, if not more.


Vike-Freiberga has made it clear that she is a candidate for the presidency of the European Union, and she is fuming — as she should be — over public suggestions that there are no qualified women to fill the post that has been dominated by men. “Those people who say that should wash their mouths out with soap,” Mrs Vike-Freiberga told The London Times. “As far as I am concerned they are voicing the deepest and most objectionable prejudice against women. They are saying that we do not have qualified women around,and I resent that. It is a lie and we should all protest against that because it implies that somehow talent was distributed only to those with one kind of chromosome.”

Check the Times story for a sketch of Vike-Freiberga’s personal and academic resume. Not qualified, indeed! The Times also reports on her challenge to EU leadership to strip away the secrecy from the process by which the EU president is chosen — a practice she compares to the methods of the Soviet Union.

She’s my new hero.