By the 1850s, the horse-drawn streetcars on rails had become a more common mode of transportation, competing with the increasingly obsolete enclosed horse-drawn omnibuses in the city of New York. The streetcars regularly barred access to their service on the basis of race and owners and drivers easily refused service to passengers of African descent and omnibuses became the default mode for people of color.
On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings boarded a streetcar of the Third Avenue Railroad Company at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets in Manhattan on her way to the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was an organist. The conductor ordered her off, instructing her to take a omnibus. When she refused, the conductor, with the help of a New York police officer, removed her by force.
Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune commented on the incident in February 1855:
“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.”
The incident sparked a movement among Black New Yorkers to end discrimination on streetcars, led by Jennings’ father, Rev. James W.C. Pennington and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. The story was publicized by Frederick Douglass and received national attention.
Jennings’s father filed a lawsuit on behalf of his daughter against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company. Her case was handled by a 24-year-old junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, a future President of the United States.
In 1855, the court ruled in her favor saying: “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 next day, the Company ordered its cars desegregated.
As important as the Jennings case was, it didn’t desegregate all streetcar lines. Activists formed the New York Legal Rights Association and in May 1855, James W. C. Pennington brought suit after being forcefully removed from a car of the Eighth Avenue Railroad. Only a decade later, in 1865, were the city’s public transit services were fully desegregated. The last case was a challenge by Ellen Anderson, a widow of a fallen United States Colored Troops soldier.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM) will host “The World of Elizabeth Jennings,” a virtual program with Jerry Mikorenda, based on his book America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights (Lyons Press, 2019), set for Wednesday, February 23, 2022.
Mikorenda’s book uses rare period photos and lithographs to recreate Jennings’ world by exploring the sights and people of old New York as a battle over the Third Avenue Railroad unfolded.
Jerry Mikorenda’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Herald, The Gotham Center History Blog, and the 2010 Encyclopedia of New York City. His biography America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights was published in 2019. His historical novel, The Whaler’s Daughter was published by Regal House in July 2021.
This program will begin at 7 pm and will be held via Zoom. Admission is $7, free for HRMM members. Registration is required and can be completed online.
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