Legal History: Elizabeth Jennings - Civil Rights hero a century before Rosa Parks

By Richard A. Dollinger
BridgeTower Media Newswires
An African-American woman takes a seat on “white-only” streetcar in New York City. The conductor throws her off. Two newspaper editors — one from Rochester — rally to her cause. A young lawyer takes her case and wins her the right to take a seat and desegregates the bus line.

The woman becomes a New York hero.

One editor becomes a national civil rights advocate. The other eventually runs for president.

Thirty years later, the young lawyer is the president of the United States.

But the courageous woman, the editors and her lawyer-turned-president and their shared ideals have seemingly receded in the memories of New Yorkers, unaware of this important slice of 19th century human rights history.

Rosa Parks?

No, the hero of this courageous story is New York’s own Elizabeth Jennings, who sought ­justice through the New York courts more than 100 years before Ms. Parks did the same thing in Montgomery, Alabama.

Rosa Parks took her famous ride on December 1, 1956. Elizabeth Jennings, who has heretofore never achieved Ms. Park’s widespread fame, took her ride on July 16, 1854, a pre-Civil War time when debate over slavery was tearing America apart.

A 24-year-old churchgoer, Ms. Jennings was running late for her Sunday assignment as the organist at the First Colored American Congregational Church in the Bowery on the New York’s lower east side.

Ms. Jennings came from a family active in the civil rights movement before the Civil War. Her grandfather, a native African, fought in the Revolutionary War. Her father was the first African-American to receive a patent from the United States Patent Office. Her mother, a freed former slave, was a founder of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, which advocated education for African-Americans in New York City.
Already established as a teacher, the younger Ms. Jennings decided to jump on the first horse-drawn streetcar she saw on that Sunday morning. At the time, New York City’ streetcars were segregated.
African-Americans were only welcomed on streetcars with large “Color Persons Allowed” signs and those cars were infrequent and often did not operate at all.

The conductor immediately confronted her, claiming the car was full. It was not. He then claimed the other passengers were bothered by her presence. There was no evidence that they were upset.

Nonetheless, he sought to forcefully eject her, knocking off her bonnet, damaging her dress and injuring her.

The New York Tribune, published by Horace Greeley — who ran for president in 1872 — described the incident:

“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.”

Public opinion, enflamed by Greeley’s widespread publication, rallied behind the young teacher. Frederick Douglass’ Paper, published weekly in downtown Rochester, circulated the story near and far and described that her “courageous conduct in the premises is beyond all praise.”

In San Francisco, the Young Men’s Association joined the protest in a resolution published by Douglass in September, 1854, stating “we cannot believe that such outrages upon rights ... will be sanctioned by the public.”

When Ms. Jennings’ father learned of her treatment, he recruited African-Americans to underwrite a claim against the streetcar company. They turned to one of the nation’s first civil rights law firms, led by abolitionist attorney Erastus D. Culver. Culver had led prosecution of the Lemmon Slave Cases two years earlier, in which slaves, brought to New York, were declared to be free in state trial courts. The decision was eventually affirmed by the New York Court of Appeals. Lemmon v. People, 20 NY 562 (1860).

The Jennings claim against the streetcar company was assigned to the firm’s 23-year-old partner, a Union College graduate from upstate New York. Chester A. Arthur, the future 20th president, had just passed the Bar when he took her claims for assault into the Brooklyn Circuit Court. Arthur convinced the presiding judge to instruct the jury that Ms. Jennings “had the same rights as others and could not be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”

Her compelling story and Arthur’s advocacy convinced the jury. Her complaint demanded $500. In Frederick Douglass’ Paper, the famed abolitionist noted “that a majority of the jury were for giving her the full amount but the others maintained some peculiar notions as to colored people’s rights and they finally agreed on $225.” Douglass added that henceforth New York City gentlemen were “responsible for carrying this decision into practice by putting an end to their exclusion from cars and omnibuses; they must be craven indeed if they fail to follow the lead” of this woman. Frederick Douglass Papers, March 2, 1855.

Ms. Jennings’ courage was the spark that desegregated New York City’s transportation system. Two later cases were resolved with similar verdicts against streetcar companies until, in 1865, the streetcar companies were fully desegregated.

Her activism did not stop there. She left New York City during the Civil War draft riots in 1863 when African-Americans were terrorized by angry mobs. She returned later in the decade and founded the first kindergarten for African-American children in the City.

Rosa Parks, no doubt, had an abundance of courage to sit on “white’s only” bus in Montgomery in 1956. Elizabeth Jennings, the school teacher seeking a ride to play her church organ on a Sunday morning a century earlier, exhibited the same courage — and her family’s longstanding faith in America’s shared values — when she jumped on that streetcar in downtown New York.

Neither woman — nor their shared struggle for equal rights — should ever be forgotten.


Richard A. Dollinger is an acting Supreme Court Justice in the 7th Judicial District. Stephen C. Edgett is a senior at St. John Fisher College and applying to law schools.


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