African American Unsung Heroes: Elizabeth Jennings Graham

African American Unsung Heroes: Elizabeth Jennings Graham

I preface this with thanks to my wife’s uncle (and fellow Brother Rice alum), Patrick for enlightening me on this early story of civil rights.

101 years prior to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery Alabama that sparked the 1950’s civil rights movements. Elizabeth Jennings started a similar movement in 1850’s New York City.

Elizabeth was a church organist at First Colored Congregational Church on Sixth Street & Second Ave she and went to catch the streetcar to go to church on July 16, 1854.

Now I preface this that back then (remember this is pre-civil war era), the privately owned street cars in New York City weren’t just segregated, most flat out refused to serve African Americans with signs stating their policy. Those that didn’t post their policy left the decision of African American ridership to the driver’s discretion.

Elizabeth boarded the street car at Pearl & Chatham with a female friend and ignored the sign and boarded the horse drawn street car anyway. The driver initially stated they needed to leave but then said if any white passengers took issue she would have to leave.

Things escalated quickly and the conductor tried to physically remove Elizabeth from the streetcar and then with the assistance of a police officer threw her off into the street.

However Elizabeth was more than just another church lady, she was a school teacher with friends in the abolitionist movement including her father who was involved with the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church.

She wrote her story of what happened that Sunday and no less than Frederick Douglass himself reprinted it for his publication as did the New York Daily Tribune, edited by known abolitionist Horace Greeley.

Her father also hired a young white lawyer named Chester Arthur, yes the man who would be president of the United States 27 years later in 1881 upon the death of James A. Garfield. He tried and won her case and $ 225.00 in damages. However he had sought $ 500.00 and she had to pay $ 22.50 in court costs.

But her case was the precedent for all future public transit segregation cases.

But this was not the end of firsts for Elizabeth Jennings, she married Charles Graham and they had a son who unfortunately died during the 1863 draft riots. Their son was sickly and didn’t die due to the riots (which were about the $ 300 fee to avoid the Civil War draft), but their son had to be buried during the riots in Brooklyn.

Also due to the riots the family had to temporarily move out of New York City and settled in Eatontown, New Jersey.

Imagine having suffered that type of personal loss and then having that kind of social unrest.

Elizabeth Jennings Graham was not done yet, after years of teaching in the New York public school system and passing of her husband (in 1867), she started the first kindergarten in New York City for African American children. She started it on the first floor of her house on west 41st Street. She stated “Love of the beautiful will be instilled into these youthful minds.”

She ran her school until she died in 1901 where she was buried with her husband and son in Brooklyn.

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