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Elizabeth Jennings Graham: The Rosa Parks of 1855

Written By: A. Wilt

February, 2016

 Elizabeth  Jennings Graham street signe named after her

Nearly everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Alabama in 1955. She later wrote that she wasn't physically tired, but was tired of giving in.

On December 1, 1955, she chose not to give in and was arrested by Montgomery Police. Her arrest sparked a city bus boycott that lasted over a year and led to a Supreme Court decision in 1956, which held that such segregation laws were illegal.

What most people don't know is that Rosa Parks wasn't the first to test the segregation of public transportation. Over 100 years before Rosa Parks' decision instigated legal and moral changes throughout the United States, Elizabeth Jennings Graham faced a similar situation.

One hundred years before Rosa Parks there was Elizabeth  Jennings Graham

(Elizabeth Jennings Graham and Rosa Parks)

On July 16, 1854, Ms. Graham was running late to play the organ at her church and boarded a streetcar owned by the Third Avenue Railway Company, which did not allow African American passengers. As she boarded, the streetcar operator protested her riding the streetcar telling her to get off and wait for a colored streetcar, alleging that the car was full, and then attempting to forcefully remove her.

He finally consented to allow her to ride the streetcar, but a few blocks later, with the aid of a New York City Police Officer, forcibly removed her. The New York City Tribune wrote in 1855 of the incident:

"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 removing her."

Elizabeth  Jennings Graham and Rosa Parks the transportation for their protest

The story didn't end there. Ms. Jennings was a wealthy woman and hailed from a prominent family in the black community. Her father had patented a dry cleaning process, and her mother was known for her famous speech "On the Cultivation of Black Women's Minds." They were active in their church, with her father helping to found two of the city's largest churches, and that's where they naturally turned for support.

Ms. Jennings wrote a letter to her family detailing her experiences on the Third Avenue streetcar. That letter was read aloud in several of the churches the next day, and it was published in Frederick Douglass' paper, as well as in the New York City Tribune, run by abolitionist Horace Greeley.

Chester Alan Arthur won the case for Elizabeth  Jennings GrahamOfficial Presidential Portrait of Chester Alan Arthur by Daniel Huntington
At the same time, her father was also consulting with Attorney Chester Arthur who had recently been admitted to the New York Bar (and who would become President of the United States after the assassination of James Garfield nearly 30 years later.) With Arthur as her legal counsel, Ms. Jennings sued the Third Avenue Railway Company.

And, though inexperienced, he won her case, with Judge Rockwell of the Circuit Court ruling 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."

The jury also awarded her damages in the amount of $225, which the Court increased by 10%, and her costs of approximately $22. This was less than half of what she had requested in damages, and amounts to about $10,000 in today's currency.

But the monetary damages weren't the most important outcome of the case. Her case did not completely desegregate the City streetcars, which were run by four separate corporations. However, her family founded the Legal Rights Association, to push for desegregation of public services. The foundation helped with legal strategies for two other similar suits that settled out of court, and by 1859, 96 years before Rosa Parks' famous bus ride, nearly all streetcars in New York City were desegregated.


Elizabeth Jennings. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Greider, K. (2005, November 13). The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar. Retrieved from The New York Times.
Jennings V. Third Ave. Railroad Incident. (n.d.). Retrieved from African American Registry.
The New York Historical Society. (2012, April 18). Elizabeth Jennings Graham. Retrieved from Find A Grave.


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