Elizabeth Jennings Graham was simply trying to get to her father’s church where she was an organist. She didn’t likely wake up that summer’s day in 1854 looking for an altercation, but through it, she became a symbol of Civil Rights a century before Rosa Parks’ landmark case.
In those days, Blacks were subject to more than segregation on transportation, they were blatantly discriminated against at will. If the presence of an African American on a streetcar was objected to by a White, then he or she would have to leave Graham, who was in her mid- to late 20s at the time, stepped onto a horse drawn streetcar in Lower Manhattan, but when the conductor saw her, he ordered her off.
But she refused, asserting her right to board the vehicle, prompting the conductor to try to remove her by brute force. She tried to fight to stay in the car, but a policeman came along and helped the conductor take her off the streetcar. An 1855 New York Tribune article later described the violence:
“The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person.”
But that wasn’t the end of it by any stretch. Similar to Rosa Parks, Graham had an impressive array of powerful people in her support network. Her father Rev. James W.C. Pennington was a prominent figure in his day and abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted her assault in his eponymous newspaper. Graham took her plight to court. She sued the Third Avenue Rail Company, which own, the driver and the conductor. The accomplished, ambitious, future U.S. president Chester A. Arthur, then a 24-year-old attorney, represented her in court.
In 1855, a jury found in Graham’s favor and awarded her $250 in damages and $22.50 for costs. The judge presiding over the case ruled “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.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of equal rights, but it was a significant statement at the time.
The Third Avenue Railroad company officially desegregated its streetcars almost immediately after the verdict and a decade later, New York City fully desegregated its public transportation.
Graham’s resistance and successful lawsuit were pivotal in affecting real change in the everyday racial dynamics in New York City, yet few know Graham’s story. Outside of being featured in an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum, Graham has been relegated to far corners of the internet that feature converted but long forgotten microfiche files. She is not as well known as Rosa Parks, but her contributions to American history are no less important.
She later started New York's first kindergarten for Black children and died in 1901 and is buried in New York's historic Cypress Hills Cemetery.
March is Women's History Month and EBONY.com will be presenting our series "Unsung Sheroes" which features Black women in history who have made their mark in society. Follow the social media hashtag #EBONYWHM for related content.