By: Nia Stewart
“No, I’ve never heard that name before,” sixth grade English teacher, Kimberly Stewart, proclaimed. “Was she a writer or something?” Stewart is only one of the millions of people in the world that were never taught or even remotely heard of, the civil activist, Elizabeth Jennings Graham.
Rosa Parks, and Claudette Colvin. Both are well-known public figures during the civil rights era, specifically during the Montgomery bus boycott. Both Parks and Colvin refused to give up their bus seats to their white counterparts, which, back then, was against regulations and prompted the entirety of the Montgomery bus boycott. However, in another place in time, someone did do that first-- before Colvin and Parks and before the civil rights movement. She has been forgotten in history and not many know her story, mainly because her time period doesn’t correspond with the esteemed twentieth-century civil rights movement. It’s time to revisit the life of the one, the only, Elizabeth Jennings Graham.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham was born March 1826, exact birth date unknown, into a prominent African American family of seven in New York City. Her family was very well known around their black middle-class community, they participated in different social and religious organizations within the community. Her father, Thomas L. Jennings, was a successful tailor that is well-known for being the first African American in the U.S to receive a patent, a legal form of intellectual property that gives its owner the legal right to exclude others from making, using, or selling a contraption. Graham’s mother, also named Elizabeth, was a former slave but was brought out of slavery by Mr. Jennings. Mrs. Jennings was known for her written speeches, sometimes Graham would read her mother’s speeches aloud amongst the community.
Growing up, Graham became more active in her mother’s esteemed social organizations and the family’s religious groups. Graham is most notable for being a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, founded by elite black women with the pursuit of advancing African Americans’ self-improvement through academic activities. The society, and Graham, strongly believed that the mind was very powerful and, according to the society, “its improvement could help with the abolition of slavery and discrimination.” So, from a young age, Graham had already dabbled in civil rights, learned about inequality in the nation, and was taught the essential values that most African Americans didn’t receive. However, it isn’t until 1854, that Elizabeth Jennings Graham becomes an icon of civil rights, alongside Parks and Colvin.
Back in the 19th century, streetcars, or trolleys, were used just as cars are used now. According to most historians, streetcars were once the chief mode of public transit in hundreds of North American cities and towns. Around this time, most African Americans weren’t able to ride the streetcars, due to the guidelines of the companies, and the majority of the African American population were still slaves in the south.
Little history lesson, the northeastern states, better known as the Union, were more industrialized, focusing more on building more factories and business. While the southeastern, better known as the Confederates, focused more on their plantations and farming, which they relied on slaves to maintain. In short, the northeastern states didn’t need slaves anymore, while the southeastern states relied heavily on them--resulting in major profit for both states.
Nevertheless, in the northeastern states, most of these streetcars were owned by private companies, in which the owners or drivers could refuse service to anyone or demand segregated seating. On July 16, 1854, a young, twenty-seven-year-old, Elizabeth Jennings Graham was running late for church, where she worked as the church’s organist. Boldly, she decided to board a streetcar, owned by the Third Avenue Railroad Company, at the corner of Pearl Street and Chatham Street. As mentioned before, owners and conductors could refuse service to anyone, and that’s exactly what they did to Graham. First, the conductor ordered her to get off the streetcar, and when she showed no signs of moving, he resorted to using force. Still, Graham held her ground, reminding them of her rights, and continuing to sit down on the streetcar as if she owned it. Unfortunately, the conductor, with the aid of a local police officer was able to forcefully remove Graham from the streetcar.
However, the incident didn’t immediately get recognition, and it isn’t until seven months later that Graham’s story finally reaches the light. Horace Greely, a famous journalist, published Graham’s altercation in the New York Tribune, a popular newspaper at the time. Greely was able to provide more graphic details by describing how they “soiled her dress and injured her person.” The article was an instant breakthrough in New York, sparking a movement within the African American community with the main message of ending racial discrimination on streetcars. Even Frederick Douglas, an accomplished abolitionist, wrote about Graham’s bravery, and his article sparked a movement worldwide.
Douglas’ article encouraged Graham’s father to file a lawsuit against the Third Avenue Railroad Company for mistreating his daughter and her rights. Graham was represented by Chester A. Arthur, the would-be twenty-first President of the United States, and presented her case to the Brooklyn court. Judge William Rockwell, one of the judges present at her trial, soberly declared that “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." In the end, Graham was given 250 dollars for her troubles, equivalent to 7,744 dollars today, and the courts ordered all streetcars in New York to desegregate.
Sadly, not all companies followed this order and the story of Graham slowly began to disappear. However, Graham continued to live her life based on her original cause: educating African Americans. She became a schoolteacher, married Charles Graham, and even bore a son, who unfortunately died young due to unexpected seizures. Due to the New York Draft Riots--a federal law that drafted young men into the ongoing Civil War-- and the violence that followed, Graham moved her husband, mother, and herself out of Manhattan to Monmouth County, New Jersey to live with her sister, Militada. After Charles’ death, Graham, along with her mother and sister, moved back to New York City and founded the city’s first black kindergarten, which was taught right in her home. Graham lived an extraordinary life until her death on June 5, 1901, at the age of 74.
Graham’s heroics live on in New York City. Earlier last year (2020), it was announced that Graham would be honored with her own statue in front of Grand Central Station, an iconic statement. The course of events that Graham experienced is very similar to Parks and Colvin with similar resulting outcomes that spurred confidence in everyone. Parks and Colvin displayed the same acts of bravery Graham did, which resulted in a movement being formed that changed the course of history. Graham was the first documented person to shattered unspoken segregation laws on public transit vehicles, and yet she is easily the most forgotten. Out of five individual people, four couldn’t place Graham’s name and suggested that she was some writer. Lissa Brown, an IT worker, was the only one who guessed Graham correctly, but for the wrong reasons. “ Was she a civil rights activist,” Brown asked. “ Her name is really shouting civil rights activist.”
Not to say that Colvin and Parks don’t deserve to be remembered for empowering a staggering movement, but Graham doesn’t deserve to be forgotten for doing a similar event during a different, and very fragile, time in history. It’s an important fact to know her story, for it’s a foundation of one of the earliest acts of civil rights in the United States. Her bravery may as well have encouraged a young Claudette Colvin, which in return Colvin inspired Rosa Parks. Unlike Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, Graham’s story was forgotten due to the time gap between the civil rights movement and the nineteenth century, and because Graham’s story wasn’t actively involved with slavery--which was still an ongoing issue during the nineteenth century. Tubman and Douglas will forever be remembered for risking their own lives in the pursuit of saving slaves during the crucial time of slavery, while Graham, like most non-slaves, were simply advocating against slavery rather than putting themselves in harm’s way for it.
“I do find Graham to be an inspiration, who should be included more in curriculums about civil rights since her impact is not widely known,” Vivian Contreras stressed, the fifteen-year-old student being somewhat familiar with Graham’s life.
With the mixture of the Black Lives Movement and the incoming Black History Month, Graham’s story may resurface and spread around the world. Publicly making Graham’s name a part of history, alongside Parks and Colvin.