Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Photo courtesy of zinnedproject.org and beats courtesy of Emmy.

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827 – 1901)

Stage Name: Lizzie on the beat

Moments of resistance fill our history — some well known and others not so much. When you think of a Black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus, who do you think of? 

When we think of influential ladies who defiantly got on a segregated bus that was designated for White people, we think of Rosa Parks. However, we’re here to share with you the story of Elizabeth Jennings Graham who, in 1854, refused to give up her New York City street car seat while looking to catch a ride to her church service one Sunday morning. Rosa Parks wouldn’t take part in the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott until nearly a century later. If given one day to come back and download Spotify, we think Elizabeth would choose to spend her day with these hits: 

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4uShY8oafYC1Ns5EqdAeYb?si=QZ8CdvHIS3yvlLRa8vJTcQ

In 1854 America, Elizabeth was a free woman — well, technically. We all know her freedom was a challenge, as segregation and racism permeated throughout the country. The system of slavery rooted itself deep in the minds of people across the nation. Its repercussions made them believe they could own and control Black people, when maybe they should have considered owning and controlling their prejudices. The Civil War had not yet happened, but the Kansas Nebraska Act was just passed. This allowed the people of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves if they would allow slavery with the assumption that the northern-most territory of Nebraska would select freedom while Kansas chose slavery. Meanwhile, New York City was bustling with its ports open to an influx of immigrants arriving from Germany and Ireland. The Black community faced discrimination, segregation and racism. Each racial group was essentially siloed as people of various races parted ways to form communities of their own throughout the boroughs (cue “Silos”). 

Elizabeth and her family were engaged with many social and religious organizations. Her father, Thomas, owned a patent for what was considered a dry cleaning business. He purchased his wife’s freedom to end her indentured servitude. Elizabeth, along with her brother, William, and her sister, Matilda, grew up in a household better off than most other Black families. She eventually became a school teacher at an African Free School for children of enslaved and free Blacks. Though Elizabeth would eventually win a pivotal court case for speaking up for her right to sit on the streetcar, she still apparently wasn’t fit to teach the youth of all Americans in the eyes of those in charge: White people, specifically men. Elizabeth met this challenge of discrimination “Face to Face” daily, yet one July morning elevated her to become a public (s)hero. 

It was a hot, sunny day in New York City, and 24-year-old Elizabeth Jennings Graham was late for church. A woman of her word, Elizabeth needed to be at the First Colored Congregational Church located on Second Avenue and Sixth Street in her “Sunday Best” early so that she could run through the choir rehearsal before the day’s service began. She served as her church’s organist, and in that role was the console of the choir. The singers alongside her depended on her scales to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Song” as they “(I) Say a Little Prayer.” 

With a need for speed, and desire to get out of the toasty July heat radiating from the city streets, Elizabeth did what we’d all do when we’re running late for something: hop on the speediest method of public transportation, which was at that time a horse drawn streetcar (not the M train, that’s for sure! LOL! We love MTA jokes! DC Metro, we’re not even gonna go there). Being that the year was 1854, hopping on the horse-powered street trolley that rolled through the “Old Town Road(s)” of Manhattan was her best option. However, this choice proved controversial. 

The streetcar she tried to get on was designated for White people, and, being Black, the Irish conductor did not want to welcome her aboard. At first, he stated the car was full and made up a lie that the other passengers would be uncomfy if she boarded the trolley *eye roll.* As Elizabeth began to state her rights, he promptly threw her to the ground. He did that for no reason other than the fact that she was Black and that made him uncomfortable. The streetcar took off and a crowd gathered. A passerby helped Elizabeth regain her footing, and a few days later her father filed a lawsuit against the Third Avenue Railroad Company. 

Thanks to the family’s well-off position, her father was able to hire a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young lawyer by the name of Chester A. Arthur (yes, THAT Chester A. Arthur) to represent his daughter in court. He was 24 years old, and it was his very first case. While her dad certainly wanted justice for his daughter, he also saw the long-term gains of taking on this court battle: achieving full rights for African-Americans to ride mass transit. 

Seeing young Chester at the helm of this case, the Third Avenue Railroad Company didn’t think it could possibly lose. But Chester, who not only dressed to impress but also did his homework to impress, pulled out a statute from 1824 that said that corporations cannot discriminate against colored persons who are sober, well-behaved and free from disease. Since Elizabeth checked all those boxes, the court sided with Chester’s argument and Third Avenue Railroad shelled out a big ol’ sum of $225 to Elizabeth — the equivalent of her annual salary. 

And because of her legal success, higher-ups at Third Avenue Railroad decided it didn’t make financial sense to discriminate against people riding their street cars. Elizabeth, or “America’s first freedom rider” inadvertently inspired change all across America as newspapers in far-flung cities picked up the story. 

She might not be as well-known as Rosa, but Elizabeth is a clear indication that change takes time. And it’s frustrating. And, sure, we take integrated buses for granted now, but there’s still a long way to go. Racism has plagued America since its founding, and we continue to fail to properly address its roots and initiate real change to end the arbitrary loss of Black lives. But people like Elizabeth Jennings Graham show that nothing changes if you do not try, and that’s why it’s important to continue to protest, to show your support and to make your voices heard. Because even when all hope seems to be lost there are stories about acts led by heroes and sheroes of our collective past, like Elizabeth, to reflect on and learn from.

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