The Rosa Parks of the 1800s: Elizabeth Jennings Graham
Elizabeth Jennings Graham was the first in a long legacy of Black women challenging transportation segregation. On Sunday, July 16, 1854 Graham, a young school teacher was running late to the Congregational Church where she was the organist. She caught the Third Avenue Streetcar. (It is important to note that slavery existed in New York and was not abolished until 1827 which left New York City heavily segregated. ) As Elizabeth attempted to board the Third Avenue Streetcar she was told by the conductor to wait for the next car that was reserved for “her people.” She responded she had no people and boarded the streetcar anyway. The conductor told her if the other passengers protested she would have to leave and Graham responded she “was a respectable person, born and raised in New York” and “that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.” This upset the streetcar conductor and he grabbed her from the car as she clung to the window sash. She recalled “[The conductor and driver] then both seized hold of me by the arms and pulled and dragged me flat down on the bottom of the platform, so that my feet hung one way and my head the other, nearly on the ground. I screamed murder with all my voice, and my companion screamed out, ‘You’ll kill her. Don’t kill her.’ The driver then let go of me and went to his horses. I went again in the car, and the conductor said you shall sweat for this. Then (he) told the driver to drive as fast as he could and not to take another passenger in the car, to drive until he saw an officer or a Station House.” When they found a police officer he pushed Elizabeth out of the streetcar into the dirt. Her case was taken to court and tried by a 24 year old lawyer who would become the 21st president of the United States; Chester A. Arthur. In February 1855 she was awarded $255 in damages and the Brooklyn Circuit Court ruled African Americans could not be excluded from transit. One woman’s protest successfully desegregated public transportation in New York City 10 years before slavery was abolished in the United States and exactly 100 years before Rosa Parks would be pushed into the national spotlight during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.