Saturday, May 19, 2012

100 Years Before Rosa Parks there was Elizabeth Jennings

Sunday morning service that led to an important Negro advance in citizenship. In the middle of the last century the right of the Negro to ride in car or omnibus depended on the sufferance of driver, conductor, and passenger. Sometimes a car stopped at a Negro's signal, again the driver whipped up his horses, while the conductor yelled to the "nigger" to wait for the next car.

Entrance might always be effected if in the company of a white person, and the small child of a kindly white household would be delegated to accompany the homeward bound black visitor into her car where, after a few minutes, conductor and passengers having become accustomed to her presence, the young protector might slip away. Such a situation was very galling to the self-respecting negro.

New York horse drawn streetcars.

In July, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, a colored school-teacher and organist at the Congregational Church, attempted to board a Third Avenue car at Pearl and Chatham Streets. She was hurrying to reach the church to perform her part in the service. The conductor stopped, but as Miss Jennings mounted the platform, he told her that she must wait for the next car, which was reserved for her people.

"I have no people," Miss Jennings said. "I wish to go to church as I have for six months past, and I do not wish to be detained."
Elizabeth Jennings refused to give up her seat on a bus. She was brutally attacked and thrown off...and she took the case to court.refused to give up her seat on a bus. She was brutally attacked and thrown off...and she took the case to court in 1854.

The altercation continued until the car behind came up, and the driver there declaring that he had less room than the car in front, the woman was grudgingly allowed to enter the car.

"Remember," the conductor said, "if any passenger objects, you shall go out, whether or no, or I'll put you out."

"I am a respectable person, born and brought up in New York," said Miss Jennings, "and I was never insulted so before."

This again aroused the conductor. "I was born in Ireland," he said, "and you've got to get out of this car."

He attempted to drag her out. The woman clung to the window, the conductor called in the driver to help him, and together they dragged and pulled and at last threw her into the street. Badly hurt, she nevertheless jumped back into the car. The driver galloped his horses down the street, passing every one until a policeman was found who pushed the woman out, not, however, until she had taken the number of the car.

She then made her way home. Elizabeth Jennings took the case into court, and it came before the Supreme Court of the State in February, 1855, Chester A. Arthur, afterwards President of the United States, being one of the lawyers for the plaintiff. The judge's charge was clear on the point that common carriers were bound to carry all respectable people, white or colored, and the plaintiff was given $225 damages, to which the court added ten per cent and costs; and to quote the New York Tribune's comment on the case,1 "Railroads, steamboats, omnibuses, and ferryboats will be admonished from this as to the rights of respectable colored people."

When you talk with the elderly educated colored people of New York today, they tell you that before the War were "dark days." The responsibility felt by the thoughtful 1 New York Tribune, February 23, 1855. "The Story of an Old Wrong," in The American Woman's Journal, July, 1895. (source: Negro Artist)

Elizabeth Jennings
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