Elizabeth Jennings Graham, forgotten warrior

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 12/14/2012, 12:32 p.m.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham, forgotten warrior


Elizabeth Jennings Graham, forgotten warrior

A century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, sparking a boycott that lasted more than a year and nearly crippled the bus company, a young, Black, Manhattan schoolteacher also refused to give up her seat. Unlike Parks, who became a beloved national icon, that schoolteacher, Elizabeth Jenkins Graham, is nearly forgotten. But the story of her bravery, tenacity and dedication to her people is worth remembering.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings and her friend Sarah Adams were late. They were on the way to the First Colored American Congregational Church on Sixth Street near the Bowery, where Jennings was the church organist. New York state had abolished slavery in 1827 but remained as racially segregated as any Southern town. That included the city's horse-drawn street coaches.

Drivers decided who rode in the cars, and many carried whips to make sure no unwelcome passengers got on. Blacks were encouraged to walk rather than endure the indignity of riding in city coaches. Cars that allowed Blacks to ride had signs that said "Negro Persons Allowed in This Car." But Jennings was in a hurry and hailed the first car she saw at Pearl and Chatham streets, not waiting to see if it was "Negro friendly" or not.

As soon as the conductor saw the two Black women get on, he yelled at them to get off and get the next car. Jennings refused. Finally the conductor said they could ride, but if any white passenger objected to them being in the car, he would put them off by force.

Jennings later wrote of their exchange, saying, "I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born ... and that he was a good for nothing, impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church."

The other passengers must have, no doubt, been shocked by this young Black woman talking back to the white conductor, who then tried to forcibly put Jennings off the car. She fought back, grabbing the window sash and then his coat in resistance. "You shall sweat for this," he said to her. The conductor hailed a policeman who then forcefully pushed Jennings from the car. But this battle was far from over.

Jennings was well-off and well-connected, with powerful and influential allies. Her father, Thomas L. Jennings, was connected with two important and powerful Black churches, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which later moved to its current location in Harlem, and St. Phillips, also in Harlem. He was also a respected businessman and community leader whose social circle included abolitionists, ministers, journalists and educators, both Black and white.

A rally was held at her church the next day. Jennings, too injured to attend, wrote a letter detailing her ordeal that was read at the church. "Sarah E. Adams and myself walked down to the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets to take the Third Avenue cars," she wrote. She described how the conductor, thought to be one Edwin Moss, had attacked her.