A black woman refused to give up her seat on a bus. She was brutally
attacked and thrown off...and she took the case to court.
Rosa Parks? No. Her name was Elizabeth Jennings. It happened in New
York City, downtown on the corner Pearl and Chatham Streets.
At least that's where it started. It was on a Sunday, July 16, 1854.
Elizabeth Jennings lived 100 years before Rosa Parks. She was a
24-year-old schoolteacher on her way to the First Colored Congregational
Church on Sixth Street and Second Avenue where she was to perform as the
Most people don't realize how long buses have been around. The first
route began on 4th Avenue in 1831. In the early years, there were two
ways to travel--omnibuses and railroad cars. Both were pulled by horses.
The omnibuses were cheaper. The railroad cars, larger and heavier, had
more entrances and exits, moved on fixed tracks, and were more
In the 1830s, New York City barely reached 14th Street, but it was
growing. By the 1850s, Manhattan stretched to 59th Street and there were
car tracks on most the major avenues, from First to Eighth.
This created a dilemma for African American New Yorkers. In the 1830s
and early 1840s, African Americans didn't use public transportation. The
driver decided if you could ride or not, and African Americans weren't
welcome. With the motto "walk," community leaders suggested
using other means.
Bucking the segregated system was also dangerous. Drivers carried
whips and used them to keep African Americans off. Threats of legal
retaliation were laughed at.
By the late 1840s, there were special public buses on which African
Americans could ride. They had large "Colored Persons Allowed"
signs on the back or in a side window. But these vehicles ran
infrequently, irregularly, and often not at all.
Just as Rosa Parks was involved in the civil rights movement of her
day, Elizabeth Jennings was part of a movement in her day too. Such
notable black New Yorkers as her father Thomas Jennings, the Rev. J.W.C.
Pennington, the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, the Rev. Peter S. Ewell,
Peter Porter, and a host of others were in the movement to end this
discrimination. Like Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Jennings won a landmark local
Here's how the New York Tribune reported the Jennings incident
in a February 1855 article: "She got upon one of the Company's cars
last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook
to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to
be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her
presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by
force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the
platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person.
Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the
car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in
The African American community was outraged, and the following day
there was a rally at Jennings' church. A letter she had written telling
her account of the incident was read aloud: "Sarah E. Adams &
myself walked down to the corner of Pearl & Chatham Sts. to take the
3rd Ave cars," she wrote. She described how the conductor, thought
to be one Edwin Moss, and the driver had attacked her. "I told him
[Moss] I was a respectable person, born and raised in this city, that I
did not know where he was from and that he was a good for nothing
impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to
"Then," Jennings continued, "the (police) officer
without listening to anything I had to say thrust me out and tauntingly
told me to get redress if I could. I would have come up [to the rally]
myself but I'm quite sore & stiff from the treatment I received from
Jennings sued the company, the driver, and the conductor. Messrs.
Culver, Parker, and Arthur represented her. Arthur was Chester A.
Arthur, then a novice 21-year-old lawyer and future President of the
United States. This law firm was hired because it had demonstrated some
talent in the area of civil rights the year before.
Jennings was well off and well connected. Her father, Thomas
Jennings, was an important businessman and community leader who had
associations with Abyssinian and St. Phillips, two major African
American churches. As a tailor, he held a patent on a method for
renovating garments and maintained a shop on Church Street.
He and others who had been involved in the fight to end transit
discrimination helped raise money for Jennings’ lawsuit. News of the
trial reached all the way to San Francisco, where an African American
group called the Young Men's Association passed a resolution condemning
In 1855, Judge Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court ruled in
Jennings’ favor, stating 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
Elizabeth Jennings claimed $500 worth of damage. The majority of the
jury wanted to give her the full amount, but, as the Tribune put
it, "Some jury members had peculiar notions as to colored people's
rights." They eventually agreed to give her $225, and the court
added 10 percent plus her expenses.
Within a month of the Jennings decision, an African American named
Peter Porter was barred from an Eighth Avenue rail car. He too sued and
the company settled out of court. From then on, African Americans were
allowed to ride on rail cars on an equal basis.
The Rev. J.W.C. Pennington was an important force in the New York
movement for equality in public transportation, although he suffered one
of the few anti-discrimination losses after Jennings' breakthrough when
he brought suit against the Sixth Avenue Rail Company. However, by 1860
Pennington was able to advise the community that the First, Second,
Third, possibly the Fourth, and certainly the Eighth and Ninth Avenue
lines were open to all. At the outbreak of the civil war, this
discriminationary practice had finally ended.
"I feel like this is an issue for young people. History is
something they should carry with them," says Sue Ortega, who
directs a small art school and presently has a "Harmony in the
Community" mural at 91st & Columbus. "It's important for
them to know that real, everyday people had a lot to do with the
struggle to make life in this city better."
Elizabeth Jennings taught in the city's African American schools in
the 1850s and 1860s, probably in African Free School #5 and then in the
New York City public school system. As Mrs. Elizabeth Graham, she once
again made a mark on our history, this time as the result of a tragedy.
In July 1863, a resolution was passed allowing wealthier New Yorkers
to buy their way out of the Civil War draft. An angry white mob rioted
over a four-day period. More than 70 blacks were lynched. Many were
killed, including Jennings' young son.
As the riot continued to swirl around them, Elizabeth Graham and her
husband, helped by a bold white undertaker, fearlessly managed to get
their boy to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn for a proper burial. The
Rev. Morgan Dix of Wall Street's Trinity Church read the burial service.