By Sharon Bingaman R.N.
The last time you ran for the subway, bus or train and jumped on to get to work, you didn’t have to stop to think that someone might be waiting with a whip to keep you from boarding. One of the many African American civil rights activists’ shoulders you are riding on is Elizabeth Jennings Graham. Most people, both Black and White, are more familiar with the name of Rosa Parks but Elizabeth Graham came about 100 years before Mrs. Parks. In 1854, Mrs. Graham was denied the right to use public transportation and ride like white folks. She successfully sued the white owned company and began the process that would culminate in the desegregation of the public transportation system in New York City. Dates for the year of Elizabeth Jennings Graham’s birth vary between 1826 and 1830 but she was born in Manhattan into a Black, middle-class family that had connections. Those connections existed due to her father being a prominent businessman and the first known Black man to hold a patent in the United States and a very active man in the church. Her mother was also a prominent Black woman best known for her speech, “On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds” and a member of a Black women’s literary society. That society promoted the idea that Black women should improve themselves through readings, discussions and community involvement. The thinking was that Black women should improve their minds so as to not be seen as inferior to whites and not allow that stereotype to continue. The Jennings’ household was full of Black journalists, educators, businessmen and church leaders who were abolitionists. From this rich mix of Black pride and accomplishment, Elizabeth Jennings Graham learned of her own self-worth and purpose which was to lift others to higher positions through education and to stand firm in her knowing that Black people were entitled to the same rights as white people. Her idea was to help in abolishing Slavery and to end discrimination. She was also a gifted musician and became an organist in her church which was The First Colored American Congregational Church. As many Black churches of the time were the center for Black community activity, Elizabeth Jennings Graham was exposed to a great deal of education and political action in the church. In 1854, she became a schoolteacher in an all-Black school which had been founded by one of the “conductors” of the Underground Railroad.
One morning, while on her way to church and running late, she decided to take a streetcar. We need to keep in mind that at that time the transportation services were privately owned and owners were able to decide, at their own discretion, who could and could not ride the street car. When Black people were allowed to ride, there was, of course, segregated seating. If a Black person was travelling with a White person they might have had a better chance of being allowed to ride. Some white people were said to have their children ride part of the way with the Black person so there wouldn’t be a problem. But many Black people didn’t want to take the risk of making a dangerous move like trying to ride. They were of a mind to walk instead. As she boarded the streetcar, the conductor intended to halt her getting on with excuses like, the car was too full or the other white passengers objected. When those approaches did not work, he tried to throw her off. One account by Horace Greely read: “they jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person”. But Ms. Jennings stood firm until a policeman appeared and she was successfully removed from the car. She reportedly told the policeman she would seek damages which was met with a snicker as he thought chances of that happening were slim. But she did sue the rail line, the driver and conductor on the car asking for $500.00 damages.
Her case was taken up by a young lawyer and later to be president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. The next year, 1855, the court found in favor of Ms. Jennings and the jury awarded her $250.00 thinking $500.00 was a lot and tacked on 10% for damages. The judge in the case declared that, “Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence”. Elizabeth Jennings Graham had successfully stood up to the white establishment ,firm in her knowing what was the right thing to do and having the courage to do it. There were other suits brought against the streetcar companies and by 1865 the public transit systems of New York were desegregated. In the late 1850’s, she married Mr. Charles Graham and they had a son who died early in life. After her husband’s death she opened and operated New York’s first kindergarten for Black children in her home. Her death was in 1901. So, as you step onto the bus, train, rapid transit, or trolley, take a moment to think of and Thank those who had the courage to step and step out to make life a bit better for their fellow man.