By Nancy Spannaus
Feb. 5, 2022—My research into the fight to end slavery in the United States keeps bringing me new surprises. For example, did you know that more than 100 years before Rosa Parks, a New York City woman won a case to desegregate public transit in that city?
Rosa Parks is rightly honored for her unwillingness to yield her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus on Dec. 1, 1955, when told to move out of a “whites only” section. She was arrested and convicted. Her arrest sparked the famous Montgomery bus boycott and helped build the public pressure that led to a Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation on public transportation the next year.
It turns out, however, that Parks was following in the footsteps of another intrepid black woman who took a similar stand more than 100 years before. Her name was Elizabeth Jennings.
The time was 1854, a period of intense racial tensions nationally. New York City was home to a large population of free blacks at that time, many of whom were active in civic and religious organizations which made their voices heard in public affairs. Many held property and paid taxes, but the horse-drawn railcars that provided public transportation consigned black people to a few cars bearing the sign “Colored People allowed in the car.” The driver could make an exception only if no white people on the vehicle objected.
Due to Jennings’ actions, this was about to change. The following description comes primarily from the book Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898.
The Jennings Case
On a Sunday afternoon in July of 1854, Miss Elizabeth Jennings, a 24-year-old teacher on her way to play the organ at services of the First Colored American Congregational Church on Sixth Street near the Bowery, attempted to board a Third Avenue car at Pearl and Chatham. The conductor told her to wait for the colored car, but after an altercation, he grudgingly allowed her entrance, though saying: “Remember, if any passenger objects, you shall go out, whether or no, or I’ll put you out.”
Jennings’s response – “I am a respectable person, born and brought up 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” – roused the conductor’s ire: “I was born in Ireland and you’ve got to get out of this car,” he said. She refused, and he tried dragging her out, as she clung to the window. He called on the driver to help, and together they pried her loose and threw her to the street. Though badly hurt, Jennings climbed back on. Finally, the driver galloped his horses down the street until he found a policeman, who ejected her.
The young woman reported this to her church and her father, Thomas Jennings, a successful tailor with a long record of activism in the black community. Born in New York in 1798, Jennings had dug trenches to help protect the city during the 1812 war, worked in the African Society for Mutual Relief, and helped found the Abyssinian Baptist Church. With the aid of the church, Elizabeth’s letter describing the incident was printed in the New York Tribune and Frederick Douglass’s paper North Star.
The Jennings also sued the Third Avenue line; Elizabeth was represented in court by the [white] firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur.
Arthur, it turns out was Chester A. Arthur, a 24-year-old recent law school graduate, and future president of the United States; he was assigned the case. At the jury trial in Brooklyn (the headquarters of the company were located in Brooklyn), Arthur argued that provisions recently enacted in the Revised Statutes relating to common carriers applied to the case. Brooklyn Circuit Court Judge William Rockwell then instructed the jury that, “under the law, colored persons, if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the right to ride the streetcars” and “could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”
The all-male, all-white jury found for the plaintiff and awarded her damages of $225. She was also awarded $22.50 in costs. More importantly, the Third Avenue Railroad Company agreed to the immediate desegregation of its streetcar service.
Other streetcar companies, however, retained segregated services and Elizabeth’s father Thomas Jennings went on to found the Legal Rights Association to challenge racial segregation in public transportation. By 1861, all New York public transit was desegregated.
As we know, that victory hardly ended the problem. But the spirited fight put up by Elizabeth Jennings was a source of inspiration for the black and white abolitionists who would carry out the battle for racial equality in the decades that followed.
 For an idea of the book-to-come, see https://americansystemnow.com/to-end-slavery-you-need-industrial-progress/.