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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