Although her year of birth is unsure, Elizabeth Jennings Graham was born in New York City, the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Jennings. The U.S. Census of 1850 for New York County's Fifth Ward listed Graham as a resident in her father's home and noted her age as 20. If that information was correct, that would place her birth in 1830. However, Graham's death certificate (No. 17072), which was issued in Manhattan on June 5, 1901, listed her age as 75 at the time of death. If that record had her age correct, she would have been born in 1826.
Raised in Family of Activists
Graham was born into an upstanding, middle-class African American family. Her father, Thomas Jennings, was a successful businessman in the tailoring trade and was the first African American to receive a patent. He created a “dryscouring” process for cleaning clothes, a precursor to subsequent dry-cleaning methods that was patented in 1821. Thomas used proceeds from his successful clothing store and patent to fund abolitionist causes and fight for the rights of free blacks living in the North. He also served as an officer with the National Negro Convention Movement and helped found the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Graham's mother—also named Elizabeth—was also an activist; in 1834, she co-founded the New York Ladies Literary Society, which promoted literacy among African Americans. Three years later she spoke at a gathering of this society and urged African Americans to cultivate their minds in an effort to combat racial prejudice. As printed in Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787–1900, her speech include the exhortation: “It is now a momentous time, a time that calls us to exert all our powers, and among the many of them, the mind is the greatest, and great care should be taken to improve it with diligence.” Mrs. Jennings went on to say that if African Americans did not educate themselves, it would “plunge us into deeper degradation, and keep us grovelling in the dust, while our enemies will rejoice and say, we do not believe they [colored people] have any minds; if they have, they are unsusceptible of improvement.”
The civil-rights work of the Jenningses rubbed off on their children. Elizabeth Jennings Graham became a teacher, following her mother's manifesto, which held that education was key to fighting anti-black bias, while her brother William became an abolitionist leader in Boston. Another brother, Thomas, Jr., went to dentistry school and served on anti-slavery committees with famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A sister, Matilda, became a dressmaker and a member of the Literary Society.
In 1849, Graham began teaching in a school run by the New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children. During this period, most children were unschooled. There were no child labor laws, so children from poor families—both black and white—worked instead of attending school. Education for African American children did not exist, which was why the Promotion Society took up the slack. Graham spent the first portion of her teaching career working in the society's two New York City schools. The budget was lean, and she received a salary of $225 in 1850. The school where she taught enrolled 268 pupils and met at a church. The society's other school had 542 pupils. In 1850, the New York City Board of Education had an operating budget of $206,842 to fund public education and gave $1,904 of that to the society. These funds were divided between the two schools, and consequently, Graham's salary remained the same throughout most of her career.
Pulled from Trolley
Besides teaching, Graham worked as an organist and choir director at the First Colored American Congregational Church, where worship was intertwined with political commentary. In 1854, she heard Sunday sermons from her minister with titles such as “The Duty of Colored People towards the Overthrow of American Slavery” and “Elevation of the African Race.” It was with this mind-set that she set out for church on the morning of July 16, 1854. She was traveling with a friend, Sarah Adams, and they were running late. The New York City transit system was in its infancy with several private companies providing service on horse-drawn trolleys. The streetcar companies had adopted segregation policies that required African Americans to ride in cars marked for their use. Trolleys that allowed African American passengers were clearly labeled with signs that stated “Colored persons allowed.” The problem was that these trolleys ran infrequently.
On this day in 1854, Graham did not want to wait for the “appropriate” trolley. She and Adams boarded the first trolley that pulled to the stop, though it lacked signage indicating that they were welcome aboard. When the conductor protested, Graham asserted her right to equal access. According to African or American? author Leslie M. Alexander, she became incensed at the conductor when he insisted that she leave the trolley. “I told him that I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York…,” she later recalled, “and that I had never been insulted before while going to church, and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.”
Graham's civil disobedience so enraged the conductor that he attempted to physically pull her from the car. The determined young woman clung to a window ledge and held tight. At this point, the conductor called for the driver to secure the horses and help him remove Graham. “They then both seized hold of me by the arms and pulled and dragged me flat down on the bottom of the platform …,” she was quoted as explaining in in John H. Hewitt, Jr.'s, Protest and Progress: New York's First Black Episcopal Church Fights Racism. “My feet hung one way and my head the other, nearly on the ground.” Despite the twoon-one offensive, the conductor and driver struggled to remove the young woman from the car and only succeeded after finding a police officer to help them.
Afterward, an outraged African American community gathered to discuss the incident. Graham was too banged up to attend, but she wrote a report of the event that was read at the meeting. The New York Tribune printed her story on July 19, 1854. According to Downtown magazine writer Grace A. Capobianco, the story explained that “the conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person.” After running locally, Graham's story was also picked up by Douglass' anti-slavery newspaper Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
Sued Transit Company
In response to the incident, Graham's father gathered together several African American leaders and founded the Legal Rights Association to fight the case. The association collected money, but Thomas Jennings footed most of the bill for the lawsuit his daughter filed against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railway Company. The Legal Rights Association hired a white law firm to try the case, which went to trial in 1855. Graham's attorney was a young man named Chester A. Arthur, who would later become president of the United States. On February 22, 1855, an all-white, male jury awarded Graham about $225 in damages, although she had sued for over twice that. The jury did not get to decide the case—only the damages—because the judge had already ruled that African Americans could not be kept from streetcars because of their race. According to Katharine Greider in the New York Times, the judge declared that African Americans who were “sober, well behaved, and free from disease” could not be refused service from a transit company.
After Graham's case, the Legal Rights Association continued to push for integration of the public transit system. While many transit companies changed their policies, not all followed suit. Likewise, the courts did not look to the ruling as precedent. For example, a few months after Graham won her case, Shiloh Presbyterian Church minister Rev. James W.C. Pennington was ejected from a public transit conveyance. He sued but lost his case, which went to trial in a different New York jurisdiction. In Pennington's case, the judge informed the jury that the transit company had the right to regulate its business using “reasonable” rules. Segregation was found to be reasonable. The transit system was eventually integrated, but it took about a decade.
Graham's experiences were not unique within her family history: her brother Thomas had a run-in with the Eastern Railroad Company in 1841, when he was insulted and ordered off a train, despite his first-class ticket. Within the larger culture of the 1850s, slavery was still legal in Southern states; in the North, African Americans were free but segregation was customary. Besides being forced to ride on separate trolleys, blacks endured restricted voting rights and could not serve on juries, were denied jobs and service in restaurants, and were rejected from institutions of higher education. Slavery in New York had been abolished in 1827, and while African Americans living there were legally free, the reality was that that “freedom” was severely restricted.
Around the time of Graham's trial in 1855, the New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children went out of business. Committed to teaching, she took a position with the New York City Board of Education. In the years after the trial, she completed her studies at the Colored Normal School and earned a teacher certification. According to Protest and Progress, Douglass cited Graham as “the most learned of our female teachers in the city of New York, having obtained mainly through her own labor, the honor of a diploma from the Board of Education of said city.”
In 1859, Graham's father died. In June of 1860, she married Charles Graham, and despite a prohibition on married women teachers, she was allowed to continue teaching. The couple had a son, Thomas, in 1982, but a year later he died of convulsions. Some scholars have suggested that the boy was adopted: New York City Board of Education records did not indicate that she missed any school, and a pregnant teacher would have been unheard of at the time. Graham was still teaching in the public schools in 1864, but she retired shortly thereafter and went into private teaching and tutoring. Her husband died in 1876.
Continued Activism, Teaching
Although Graham slipped from the spotlight in the decades following her court challenge to the transit system, she continued advocating for equal rights. In 1890, she penned a letter to the New York Age in which she admonished fellow African Americans for not rallying to support fellow New Yorker Timothy Thomas Fortune. In June of that year, Fortune had been expelled from a Manhattan hotel bar after refusing to leave when the manager told him the establishment would not serve him. He was arrested for disorderly conduct. In her letter, titled “New York's Lack of Spirit,” Graham denounced the African American community, maintaining that they should have helped bear the cost of Fortune's case because the ruling would affect them all.
In 1895, Graham established a kindergarten for African American children in her home. Under her guidance, students learned early literacy skills as well as creating art and planting seeds. It was the first public kindergarten for African American children to be established within New York City, and it operated until shortly before Graham's death, on June 5, 1901. She was buried alongside her family at the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn and was largely forgotten to history until 2007. Then, students at a local elementary school championed her cause and went before the New York City Council to get a street named after her. A sign reading “Elizabeth Jennings Place” now stands at the street corner near where her historic confrontation took place.
Alexander, Leslie M., African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784–1861, University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Foner, Philip S., and Robert James Branham, editors, Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787–1900, University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Hewitt, John H., Jr., Protest and Progress: New York's First Black Episcopal Church Fights Racism, Garland Publishing, 2000.
New York Amsterdam News, December 13, 2012, Jasmin K. Williams, “Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Forgotten Warrior,” p. 30.
New York Times, November 13, 2005, Katharine Greider, “The Schoolteacher on the Street,” p. C3.
Downtown Magazine online, http://www.downtownmagazinenyc.com/ (November 13, 2016), Grace A. Capobianco, “Elizabeth Jennings Graham—Lower Manhattan's Rosa Parks.”❑