Elizabeth Jennings, 1895
Most American students learn about Rosa Parks, the African American civil rights activist who was famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955. A few learn of Claudette Colvin, a teenager who was arrested for the same crime earlier that same year in Montgomery, Alabama, and whose testimony in Browder v. Gayle helped end bus segregation in Alabama. But few learn of Elizabeth Jennings (later Elizabeth Jennings Graham), an African American woman who, over 100 years earlier, sparked the end of transportation segregation in New York City.
In the 1850s, horse-drawn streetcars were a common mode of transportation, and were run by private companies, giving their owners and drivers the power to decide who to serve. On July 16, 1854 Elizabeth Jennings was running late for work as an organist at the First Colored Congregational Church. She hopped on a streetcar labeled “whites only” at Pearl and Chatham Streets, but the conductor ordered her off. When she refused, the conductor and a policeman forcefully removed her.
Elizabeth Jennings’ father, Thomas Jennings, was the first African American to receive a US patent (for a Dry Cleaning method), and rallied to her cause. Her family and church formed a legal rights association, and hired a young Chester A. Arthur (the one who’d go on to be President) as her attorney. In 1855 they achieved a court victory, which led to the desegregation of New York City’s public transportation, 100 years before the fight in Alabama.
Jennings went on to establish New York’s first African American kindergarten in her home in 1895, and we will always remember her as a pioneer of desegregation.