Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
Before Rosa Parks, there was Elizabeth Jennings.
A century before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Elizabeth Jennings Graham defied the racial segregation of public transit in New York City. On July 16, 1854, Jennings (Graham was added to her name after marrying in 1860) was running late to church and tried to ride a white-only streetcar in Manhattan. The conductor told her they weren’t accepting black passengers. She was forced out of the streetcar, and a police officer inflicted injuries by physically pushing her.
“After dragging me off the car, he drove me away like a dog saying, not to be talking there and raising a mob or a fight,” said Jennings, quoted in Frederick Douglass’ Paper later that summer.
Jennings’s actions, and subsequent court case won in 1855, triggered the Brooklyn Circuit Court to rule that African Americans could not be excluded from transit. It wasn’t until the New York State legislature passed the Civil Rights Act of 1873 that racial discrimination in public transportation was explicitly outlawed in New York City. However, Jennings’s case was reported in the press and talked about in a way that forced more New Yorkers to consider the issue of racial segregation on public transportation.
In the years that followed, Jennings’s contributions became lost to history because no one was writing about her. Meanwhile, documentation, in the form of newspaper clippings, census records, and other documents, remained. Author John Hewitt wrote one of the few pieces of historical research about Jennings Graham in 1990, writing at the time, “By and large, historians and writers have not dealt adequately with [her] story.” In his research, Hewitt continued, “What emerged was the saga of a remarkable family—a bright, proud, cultured, feisty, middle class, 19th century, African-American woman, who stimulated in New York City what Mrs. Rosa Parks was to initiate in Montgomery, Alabama, a hundred years later.”
Chester Arthur, Jennings’s lawyer, had only been admitted to the bar a couple of months before Jennings was pushed off the streetcar, but he made use of a “recently enacted state law making common carriers liable for the acts of their agents and employees,” according to Hewitt, and won the case. Arthur would later become the U.S. president in 1881 after former President James Garfield was assassinated.
In what is likely the first major display of Jennings Graham’s story in recent years, The Museum of the City of New York’s Rebel Women exhibition includes her portrait and a description of her rebellion against racial segregation in 19th-century New York City. Rebel Women opened in July and features New York City women of the 1800s who defied the Victorian-era expectations of them.
“We kind of call her the first Rosa Parks,” Rebel Women curator Marcela Micucci said of Jennings Graham.
What is often left out of Parks’s story is that she had been a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s Montgomery chapter for over a decade before the 1955 arrest. Similarly, Elizabeth Jennings Graham spent her life as a schoolteacher promoting the education of black children, an extraordinary effort especially for the 19th century. And as Hewitt noted, “the brilliant success of the trial may well have been a source of encouragement as [Jennings] refocused her attention and energies on another important reality of her life: her role in the ongoing struggle to provide a decent education for the young black girls and boys of mid-19th century.”
This was before New York City’s Progressive Movement, which began in the 1890s. Even by the turn of the 20th century, only 6 in 10 school-aged children in New York were enrolled in school, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.
Like Parks, when Jennings Graham refuted the idea that she should be late to church because a streetcar with available space was designated white-only, it was not her first time contemplating racial injustice or acting against the white supremacist status quo. She deserves a place in the history books.