Black History Month: Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Street corner where Elizabeth Jennings Graham boarded a whites-only streetcar.
On July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings Graham boarded a streetcar that was for whites-only on this corner in New York.

Manhattan, which is part of New York City, had the largest population of African Americans in the United States before the Civil War. African Americans were allowed to own property, and they paid taxes. But transportation was segregated, meaning that African American and white residents rode separately. In 1854, people travelled around New York on large horse-drawn streetcars.

On July 16, Elizabeth Jennings, a 24 year-old school teacher, tried to board a streetcar to get to church. Some of the streetcars had signs that said, “Colored Persons Allowed.” Others had no sign at all. Elizabeth tried to get on a streetcar without a sign. The conductor told her that the car was full. She pointed out empty seats. Then he told her that other passengers didn’t want her there. Finally, the conductor tried to force her off the streetcar. Jennings resisted.

The next day, there was a large rally at her church to show support for Jennings. But Jennings was not satisfied. She hired a lawyer and took the railway company to court. In early 1855, the court ruled in Jennings’ favor. All of the city’s street and rail cars were desegregated in 1860.

What Do You Think? How would you describe Jennings? What makes you describe her that way?

Photo Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library [54350].