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As a police officer threw Elizabeth Jennings out into the street, white passengers watched in silence.

Illustration by Brad Walker

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.3, SL.6-8.1

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.10, Civ.12, His.1, His.14, His.15

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Civic ideals and practices

The Civil Rights Hero You’ve Never Heard Of

A century before Rosa Parks, a young black woman in New York City refused to get off a whites-only streetcar, striking an early blow for equal rights

It is a story that most Americans know by heart: In a city where black people suffer the daily humiliation of segregation, an African-American woman stands her ground. One day, she defies the rules that separate blacks from whites on public transportation. Her act of resistance leads to changing those rules for good.

Who was that woman? Most of us would automatically think of Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955, her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white person led to a campaign to desegregate Montgomery’s buses and helped spark the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s (see “1955: Rosa Parks,” below).

But this drama took place in New York City a full century before Parks’s protest. There, in 1854, 27-year-old Elizabeth Jennings refused a conductor’s command to get off a streetcar where white passengers were riding. After she was forced off that car, she sued the streetcar company and won. 

You may not have heard of Elizabeth Jennings. And yet, “her case was the one that helped break the back of segregation in New York,” says Amy Hill Hearth, the author of a new book about Jennings called Streetcar to Justice. Jennings was, historians say, one of the first civil rights heroes in American history.

It is a story that most Americans know by heart. In a city where black people suffer the daily insult of segregation, an African-American woman stands up for herself. One day, she challenges the rules that separate blacks from whites on public transportation. Her act of resistance leads to changing those rules for good.

Who was that woman? Most of us would think of Rosa Parks. In 1955, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama. This led to a campaign to desegregate Montgomery’s buses. It helped start the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s (see “1955: Rosa Parks,” below).

But this drama took place in New York City, 100 years before Parks’s protest. In 1854, 27-year-old Elizabeth Jennings refused a conductor’s command to get off a streetcar where white passengers were riding. After she was forced off that car, she sued the streetcar company and won.

You may not have heard of Elizabeth Jennings. And yet, “her case was the one that helped break the back of segregation in New York,” says Amy Hill Hearth, the author of a new book about Jennings called Streetcar to Justice. Jennings was, historians say, one of the first civil rights heroes in American history.

Segregated New York

In 1854, the United States was only a few years from its Civil War (1861-1865), a conflict largely fought over the issue of slavery. By 1804, laws had been passed to abolish slavery throughout the Northern states, including in New York in 1799. Many Southerners, however, believed that slave labor was crucial to their way of life, and were ready to fight to keep it. 

In New York City, freedom had allowed a small but thriving black middle class to grow. Its leaders stressed self-improvement and strove to prove themselves to be equal to whites. Among this community’s most prominent members was Thomas Jennings. A successful tailor, Jennings was the first African-American to hold a U.S. patent, for an early method of dry-cleaning clothes. His daughter Elizabeth was a teacher at a school that prepared young African-Americans for higher education. Like her father, she was proud and independent.

In 1854, the United States was close to the beginning of its Civil War (1861-1865). That battle was largely fought over the issue of slavery. By 1804, laws had been passed to end slavery in the Northern states. New York had outlawed it in 1799. However, many Southerners believed that slave labor was required for their way of life. They were ready to fight to keep it.

In New York City, freedom had allowed a small but successful black middle class to grow. Its leaders encouraged self-improvement. They worked hard to prove themselves to be equal to whites. Among this community’s most well-known members was Thomas Jennings. He was a successful tailor. Jennings was also the first African-American to hold a U.S. patent. It was for an early method of dry-cleaning clothes. His daughter Elizabeth was a teacher at a school that prepared young African-Americans for higher education. Like her father, she was proud and independent.

“Her case . . . helped break the back of segregation in New York.”

Still, being free didn’t mean being equal. “Black New Yorkers were second-class citizens,” Hearth says. “Segregation was a way of life.” Even successful blacks faced severe limitations on where they could live, work, and mix with whites in public.

But most of those limitations were based on custom rather than actual laws. The city’s streetcar lines—also called railroads because they ran on tracks—were a prime example. Conductors might allow a black person to board a car as long as no white riders objected. But conductors could also—and frequently did—make blacks wait for a car bearing the sign “Colored People Allowed in the Car.”* 

As a result, blacks often walked long distances rather than be faced with that indignity. But on the morning of July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings and her friend Sarah Adams were running late to church. As they stepped into the street, they waved down a Third Avenue streetcar—one without the “colored people” sign.

Note: *“Colored people,” a phrase once used to describe African-Americans, is now considered out-of-date and offensive.

Still, being free didn’t mean being equal. “Black New Yorkers were second-class citizens,” Hearth says. “Segregation was a way of life.” Even successful blacks faced severe restrictions on where they could live, work, and mix with whites in public.

But most of those restrictions were based on custom rather than actual laws. The city’s streetcar lines—also called railroads because they ran on tracks—were a good example. Conductors might allow a black person to board a car as long as no white riders complained. But conductors could refuse to let blacks ride. And they often did, making blacks wait for a car displaying the sign “Colored People Allowed in the Car.”*

As a result, blacks often walked long distances rather than face that insult. But on the morning of July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings and her friend Sarah Adams were running late to church. As they stepped into the street, they waved down a Third Avenue streetcar that did not have a “colored people” sign.

Note: *“Colored people,” a phrase once used to describe African-Americans, is now considered out-of-date and offensive.

Thrown Out Into the Street

From the start, there was trouble. As the women tried to board, the conductor told them that they should wait for another streetcar that had “their people” on it. Jennings refused to leave. 

After a tense standoff, the conductor said he would let them on if no one complained. This offended Jennings, as she would later relate: “[I] told him I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York . . . and that he was a good-for-nothing [disrespectful] fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.” 

That did it. The conductor moved to push the women down into the street. Adams was ejected, but Jennings put up a struggle on the car’s platform. She held on to a window frame and then the conductor’s coat before he called to the driver for help. The two men nearly succeeded in pushing Jennings off. But when the driver went back to his horses, Jennings broke free from the conductor’s grasp and boldly entered the car. 

The car continued on until the driver hailed a policeman. Without listening to her explanation, Jennings later wrote, the officer “thrust me out, and then pushed me.” As she stood in the street, the officer told her to see if she could do anything about what he had done. Then, she recalled, he “drove me away like a dog.”

From the start, there was trouble. As the women tried to board, the conductor stopped them. He told them that they should wait for another streetcar that had “their people” on it. Jennings refused to leave.

After a tense standoff, the conductor said he would let them on if no one complained. This insulted Jennings. As she later recalled: “[I] told him I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York . . . and that he was a good-for-nothing [disrespectful] fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.”

That did it. The conductor moved to push the women down into the street. Adams was pushed out, but Jennings put up a struggle on the car’s platform. She held on to a window frame and then the conductor’s coat. He called to the driver for help. The two men nearly succeeded in pushing Jennings off. But when the driver went back to his horses, Jennings broke free and boldly entered the car.

The car continued on until the driver alerted a policeman. Without listening to her side of the story, Jennings later wrote, the officer “thrust me out, and then pushed me.” As she stood in the street, the officer told her to see if she could do anything about what he had done. Then, she recalled, he “drove me away like a dog.”

A Future President Takes the Case

At home, Jennings’s father insisted that she write down what had happened to her, then he showed her account to the leaders of the city’s black community. They called an emergency meeting at a local church to decide on a plan of action.

Word of Jennings’s ordeal spread quickly. The New-York Daily Tribune, an abolitionist newspaper run by the influential editor Horace Greeley, printed her story under the headline “Outrage Upon Colored Persons.” The news also appeared in other abolitionist papers.

Jennings and her father decided to sue the Third Avenue Railroad Company. They hired an attorney named Chester A. Arthur to take the case. Just 25 years old and fresh out of law school at the time, Arthur later went on to become the 21st U.S. president, in 1881.

At home, Jennings’s father insisted that she write down what had happened to her. Then he showed her account to the leaders of the city’s black community. They called an emergency meeting at a local church to decide on a plan of action.

Word of Jennings’s experience spread quickly. The New-York Daily Tribune was an abolitionist newspaper run by the editor Horace Greeley. He printed her story. The headline read “Outrage Upon Colored Persons.” The news also appeared in other abolitionist papers.

Jennings and her father decided to sue the Third Avenue Railroad Company. They hired an attorney named Chester A. Arthur to take the case. He was just 25 years old and fresh out of law school at the time. Arthur later went on to become the 21st U.S. president, in 1881.

Abolitionist newspapers rallied to Elizabeth Jennings’s defense.

On February 22, 1855, Jennings’s case was heard before a packed courtroom. Judge William Rockwell instructed the all-white male jury that the streetcar company should be in the business of serving “all respectable persons.” “Colored persons, if sober, well-behaved, and free from disease [have] the same rights as others,” the judge said.

After a day of testimony, the jury decided in Jennings’s favor. She was awarded $225 in damages. Jennings and her supporters may have been surprised at the quick win, says Kyle Volk, a historian at the University of Montana. “But they also knew they had much work to do.”

On February 22, 1855, Jennings’s case was heard before a packed courtroom. Judge William Rockwell instructed the all-white male jury that the streetcar company should be in the business of serving “all respectable persons.” “Colored persons, if sober, well-behaved, and free from disease [have] the same rights as others,” the judge said.

After a day of testimony, the jury decided in Jennings’s favor. She was awarded $225 in damages. The quick win may have surprised Jennings and her supporters, says Kyle Volk. He is a historian at the University of Montana. “But they also knew they had much work to do.”

The Battle Continues

As a result of the Jennings decision, the Third Avenue Railroad Company desegregated all of its cars. Most of the city’s dozen or so other streetcar lines followed suit.

But some streetcar companies, which were all independently owned, refused to change. More important, segregation itself was still not illegal.

Determined to integrate all the streetcars, Thomas Jennings and other black leaders organized the Legal Rights Association (LRA). In churches, civic meetings, and newspapers, they called for blacks to keep entering the remaining segregated lines, then sue if they were turned away. The LRA would cover their legal bills.

As a result of the Jennings decision, the Third Avenue Railroad Company desegregated all of its cars. Most of the city’s dozen or so other streetcar lines did the same.

All the streetcar companies were independently owned. Some companies refused to change. More important, segregation itself was still not illegal.

Thomas Jennings and other black leaders were determined to integrate all the streetcars. They organized the Legal Rights Association (LRA). In churches, civic meetings, and newspapers, they called for blacks to keep entering the remaining segregated lines. If they were turned away, they were encouraged to sue. The LRA would cover their legal bills.

Jennings’s struggle foreshadowed the civil rights movement.

To Volk, this grassroots crusade sounds very much like the fight for equality that changed Montgomery, Alabama—and the nation—a century later. “It’s one of the earliest seeds of the civil rights movement,” he says.

It wasn’t until 1864—10 years after Jennings’s stand and other legal battles—that New York’s last segregated streetcar line opened all of its cars to blacks. Segregation in public transportation in New York was formally outlawed by the state legislature in 1873.

To Volk, this crusade sounds very much like another fight for equality. That one changed Montgomery, Alabama—and the nation—a century later. “It’s one of the earliest seeds of the civil rights movement,” he says.

In 1864, 10 years after Jennings’s stand and other legal battles, New York’s last segregated streetcar line opened all of its cars to blacks. Segregation in public transportation in New York was formally outlawed by the state in 1873.

A Tale Nearly Lost to History

For years after the Jennings victory, blacks in New York City celebrated February 22, the date of the verdict. Jennings herself remained dedicated to improving life for African-Americans. In 1895, she founded the city’s first kindergarten for black children. 

But for the most part, history passed Elizabeth Jennings by. When she died in 1901, it was barely noted outside the black press. Today, her achievement is mentioned in few studies of the fight for civil rights.

Why? For starters, her story was almost immediately overshadowed by the larger struggles of the Civil War. Says Hearth: “Slavery was a much more urgent issue than the rights of free blacks in the North.” Also, Jennings didn’t have the benefit of the modern media. By contrast, during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, images of peaceful protesters being beaten by police were shown in newspapers and on TV throughout the country, confronting Americans with the ugly reality of discrimination.

Jennings’s struggle may not be famous, but it has a lot to teach us, historians say. Her fight for equality shows how far back the crusade for civil rights stretches­—and that it was as important in the North as it was in the South. “Her story,” says Hearth, “helps Americans understand the full course of our history.” 

For years after the Jennings victory, blacks in New York City celebrated February 22. That was the date of the verdict. Jennings remained dedicated to improving life for African-Americans. In 1895, she founded the city’s first kindergarten for black children.

But for the most part, history passed Elizabeth Jennings by. When she died in 1901, it was barely noticed outside the black press. Today, her achievement is mentioned in few studies of the fight for civil rights.

Why? For starters, her story was almost immediately overshadowed by the larger struggles of the Civil War. Says Hearth: “Slavery was a much more urgent issue than the rights of free blacks in the North.” Also, Jennings didn’t have the benefit of the modern media. By the 1950s and ‘60s, images of peaceful protesters being beaten by police were shown in newspapers and on TV throughout the country. The images showed Americans the ugly reality of discrimination.

Jennings’s struggle may not be famous. However, it has a lot to teach us, historians say. Her fight for equality shows how far back the crusade for civil rights stretches. It was as important an issue in the North as it was in the South. “Her story,” says Hearth, “helps Americans understand the full course of our history.”

CORE QUESTION: Why would Elizabeth Jennings’s story be considered “one of the earliest seeds of the civil rights movement”? Explain your answer.

1955: Rosa Parks

Bettmann/Getty Images

Rosa Parks in late 1956, after she had helped integrate Montgomery’s buses

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was taking a bus home from her job as a seamstress at a downtown Montgomery, Alabama, department store. That day, Parks sat in what was called the “no-man’s land” between the “colored” section in the rear of the bus and the “white” section in front. When the front of the bus filled up, the driver told Parks to give her seat to a white passenger. She refused. The driver had her arrested.

From that small rebellion came a revolution. Leaders of Montgomery’s black community organized a citywide boycott of buses. They chose as a spokesperson for their movement a 26-year-old minister who was new to town— Martin Luther King Jr.  

The African-Americans of Montgomery scored an important victory when, in November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city’s segregated public buses were unconstitutional. That win then helped inspire a nationwide civil rights movement demanding equality for African-Americans—and helped propel King to prominence as its most important leader. 

 “I knew someone had to take the first step,” Parks later said of her quiet act of courage, “and I made up my mind not to move.”

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was taking a bus home from her job as a seamstress at a downtown Montgomery, Alabama, department store. That day, Parks sat in what was called the “no-man’s land” between the “colored” section in the rear of the bus and the “white” section in front. When the front of the bus filled up, the driver told Parks to give her seat to a white passenger. She refused. The driver had her arrested.

From that small rebellion came a revolution. Leaders of Montgomery’s black community organized a citywide boycott of buses. They chose as a spokesperson for their movement a 26-year-old minister who was new to town— Martin Luther King Jr.  

The African-Americans of Montgomery scored an important victory when, in November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city’s segregated public buses were unconstitutional. That win then helped inspire a nationwide civil rights movement demanding equality for African-Americans—and helped propel King to prominence as its most important leader. 

 “I knew someone had to take the first step,” Parks later said of her quiet act of courage, “and I made up my mind not to move.”

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