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150 Years After Elizabeth Jennings

On the mornings I board the Q101 bus from Queens to Manhattan, it’s not uncommon for the majority of my fellow riders to be people of color. This is an unremarkable observation in 2004 New York where integrated buses are hardly news…thanks to Rosa Parks and her spontaneous act of bravery.

Well, that’s what we’re taught, aren’t we? However, to buy into the Rosa Parks mythology* not only involves ignoring some crucial history about 1955, it erases the name of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings from Big Apple lore.

It was 150 years ago last week that Jennings, a 24-year-old schoolteacher setting out to fulfill her duties as organist at the First Colored Congregational Church on Sixth Street and Second Avenue, fatefully waited for the bus on the corner of Pearl and Chatham. Getting around 1854 New York City often involved paying a fare to board a large horse-drawn carriage…the forerunner to today’s behemoth motorized buses. For black New Yorkers like Jennings, it wasn’t that simple.

Pre-Civil War Manhattan may have been home to the nation’s largest African-American population and New York’s black residents may have paid taxes and owned property, but riding the bus with whites, well, that was a different story. Some buses bore large “Colored Persons Allowed” signs, while all other buses-those without the sign-were governed by a rather arbitrary system of passenger choice.

“Drivers determined who could ride,” journalist Jasmin K. Williams explains, adding that NYC bus drivers “carried whips to keep undesirable passengers off.” This unfortunate arrangement was the focus of a burgeoning movement for public transportation equality with Rev. J.W.C. Pennington of the First Colored Congregational Church (where Jennings just so happened to play the organ) playing a major role.

Against such a volatile backdrop, Lizzie Jennings opted for a bus *without* the “Colored Persons Allowed” sign on July 16, 1854. The New York Tribune described what happened next: “She got upon one of the Company’s cars…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 outraged Jennings told the conductor she was “a respectable person, born and raised in this city,” calling him “a good-for-nothing, impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.”

The Tribune picks up the story from there: “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 removing her.”

This would not be the end of it for, like Rosa Parks, Jennings’ behavior was no impetuous act of resistance. “Jennings was well connected,” says Williams. “Her father was an important businessman and community leader with ties to the two major black churches in the city.” Not satisfied with the massive rally that took place the following day at her church, Elizabeth Jennings hired the law firm of Culver, Parker & Arthur and took the Third Avenue Railway Company to court.

In a classic “who knew?” situation, Jennings was represented by a 24-year-old lawyer named Chester A. Arthur…yes, he who would go on to become the 21st president upon the death of James A. Garfield in 1881. The trial took place in the bus company’s home base of Brooklyn-then a separate city-where, in early 1855, Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court ruled in the black schoolteacher’s favor…in that 1855 sort of way: “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,” Rockwell declared.

Jennings claimed $500 worth of damages but as the Tribune put it, “Some jury members had peculiar notions as to colored people’s rights,” and she ended up with $225, plus another $22.50 for court costs. Regardless, just one day after the verdict, the Third Avenue Railway Company issued an order to admit African-Americans onto their buses.

By 1860, all of the city’s street and rail cars were desegregated…and Elizabeth Jennings had married Charles Graham. She was still teaching in New York’s African-American schools. Her struggles, however, were far from over.

Thanks to a July 1863 resolution called the Union Conscription Act, any New Yorker with a spare $300 was able to buy his way out of the Civil War draft. Resentment over such favoritism soon turned into rioting by poor whites. “The crowd’s anger (had) two sources,” explains historian Kenneth C. Davis, “the idea of fighting to free the slaves, and the unfairness of the ability of the wealthy to avoid conscription.” The ensuing “Draft Riots” saw over 70 African-Americans lynched. There were other, lesser-known victims…like Thomas J. Graham, one-year-old son of Elizabeth and Charles. Circumstances surrounded the child’s death remain unclear but author John Hewitt, who has researched Jennings’s life, believes young Thomas died of “convulsions” as the rioting and violence played out on the streets outside his home.

Although calm had yet to be restored to her city, Elizabeth Graham boldly solicited the help of a white undertaker and managed to get her son’s body to Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery for a proper burial.

Elizabeth Jennings-Graham died in 1901…and I seriously doubt many of my co-commuters on the Q101 have ever heard of her.

*Elizabeth Jennings’ spiritual progeny was also “well-connected,” having spent twelve years leading her local NAACP chapter. The summer before she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, Parks “attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she’d met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent Supreme Court decision banning ‘separate-but-equal’ schools,” writes journalist Paul Loeb. “In short,” he says, “Parks didn’t make a spur-of-the-moment decision.”

In her 1991 book, “My Story,” Parks writes: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Mickey Z. is the author of two brand new books: “The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda” (Common Courage Press) and “A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense” (Library Empyreal/Wildside Press). For more information, please visit: http://mickeyz.net.


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Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.  

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