Local Leaders Seek to Remedy Monumental Mistake
Community Board 1 (CB1) is urging the City to erect a monument in Lower Manhattan to a civil rights pioneer who desegregated New York transit in the decade before the Civil War. While the saga of Rosa Parks and the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott has become a canonical American parable, New York played out its own version of the same drama, more than a century earlier. In July, 1854, Lower Manhattan resident Elizabeth Jennings Graham was on her way to church, and boarded a horse-drawn streetcar at Chatham and Pearl Streets. (This is now the intersection of Park Row and Pearl Street.)
At a January 24 meeting, Paul Goldstein, chair of CB1’s Board’s Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committee, said, “this is an issue the committee has been talking about and considering for a series of meetings. We’ve held discussions with the Harlem Historical Society, which is leading the effort to install a monument to recognize Elizabeth Jennings Graham.”
“For those who aren’t aware,” he continued, “she was an African-American teacher and civil rights activist, who challenged segregation on public transportation a full 100 years before Rosa Parks. In 1855, she won a lawsuit against New York Third Avenue Railroad Company that ejected her from a streetcar because she was African American. The case led to the eventual desegregation of all of the New York City transit system by 1855.”
“This incident took place here in Community Board 1,” Mr. Goldstein said. “We finally were able to come down to potential sites that the Historical Society put forth, that the committee was comfortable with. We’re asking city agencies to review these and work with the Harlem Historical Society, to see if any are appropriate.”
Two of the sites are in Saint Andrews Plaza (the large, red brick plaza located between the Municipal Building and Police Headquarters), and one is the so called ‘wedding garden,’ located in front of the State Supreme Court building, at Worth and Centre Streets. A fourth potential site is the northeast corner of Park Row and Pearl Street, near Chatham Green.
Like much else in mid-19th century New York, streetcar service was segregated, with most coaches reserved for white riders but some bearing signs that read, “Negro Persons Allowed in This Car.” And although Graham did not intend to make a political point, she was running late for church, and boarded the first carriage that came to the stop where she was waiting. When the conductor ordered her off, brusquely insisting that she wait for a coach designated for African-American riders, Graham refused to move.
“He then told me that the other car… was appropriated for ‘my people,’” she wrote the following day, in a missive that captured the attention of the entire City. “I told him I had no people. I wished to go to church and I did not wish to be detained. He still kept driving me off the car; said he had as much time as I had and could wait just as long. I replied, ‘very well, we’ll see.’ He waited some minutes, [but] when the driver became impatient, he said, ‘well, you may go in, but remember, if the passengers raise any objections you shall go out, whether or no, or I’ll put you out.’”
“I told him I was a respectable person, born and raised 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,” Graham’s narrative continued. “He then said he would put me out. I told him not to lay hands on me. He took hold of me and I took hold of the window sash. He pulled me until he broke my grasp. I took hold of his coat and held onto that. He also broke my grasp from that. He then ordered the driver to fasten his horses and come and help him put me out of the cars. Both seized hold of me by the arms and pulled and dragged me down on the bottom of the platform, so that my feet hung one way and my head the other, nearly on the ground.”
The conductor, along with the driver, “thrust me out and then tauntingly told me to get redress if I could…. After dragging me off the car, he drove me away like a dog, saying not to be talking there and raising a mob or fight.”
The conductor, whose name was Moss, had tangled with the wrong woman. Graham was not only educated and eloquent, but had been raised with a strong sense of justice. And she was very well connected. Her family ranked among the African-American elite of 1850s New York. Her father, Thomas Jennings, was a successful businessman with ties to intellectual and cultural leaders (both black and white) throughout New York. His 1821 invention of the garment laundering process now known as dry cleaning (which he called “dry scouring”) earned Jennings the first patent ever granted to an African American, and made him independently wealthy. (He used much of his fortune to purchase the freedom of enslaved family members.)
Graham promptly wrote out an account of her ordeal, and passed it along to the First Methodist Congregational Colored Church, located at the Bowery and Sixth Street—the house of worship to which she had been traveling that morning. Her letter was read aloud before many hundreds of attendees, who erupted into a spontaneous protest and rally. The text was then picked up and printed in full by Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and (more importantly), the North Star, a newspaper published by renowned abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. This brought the case national attention.
Graham’s father then retained the law firm of Culbert, Parker and Arthur, which had a record of successful civil-rights and anti-slavery suits. The case was litigated by junior partner Chester Arthur, who would go on to become president of the United States in 1881. A jury found that there was no basis in New York law to segregate streetcars (or any other public accommodation) and awarded Graham $225 in damages, the equivalent of slightly more than $7,000 today.
The court ordered the Third Avenue Railroad Company to desegregate its streetcars immediately, ruling that “colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, have the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”
This litigation also marked the beginning of an avalanche of similar suits that continued through the Civil War and afterward, the eventual result of which was to make segregation illegal in all forms of public accommodation in New York. Graham’s father spurred this process on by helping to found (and becoming one of the chief financial backers of) the Legal Rights Association—a group that mounted court challenges to all forms of segregation, and served as the inspiration for 20th-century civil rights groups, such as the NAACP.
More than a century and a half later, Elizabeth Jennings Graham is still waiting for the recognition she deserves. The good news is that she may soon get it. The bad news is that it might be in the wrong place. The City is has been developing plans to honor Graham, but (for reasons nobody has explained) appears intent upon locating the monument in Midtown, near Grand Central Station. This is an area of New York to which Graham had no known connection.
By contrast, creating a memorial to her in Lower Manhattan would not only honor Graham near the site of her heroic stand, but would also offer proximity to the African Burial Ground National Monument, the Wall Street Slave Market, and numerous other nearby sites that figure prominently in African-American history.
A further irony is that while Downtown residents and community leaders have, in recent years, resisted the foisting onto the community of proposed monuments that have no apparent connection to Lower Manhattan, a local tribute to Graham would actually bring her narrative to life with a sense of context and place.
For the time being, however, the only acknowledgement New York gives to the civil rights pioneer who preceded Rosa Parks by more than 100 years is a stretch of Park Row, adjacent to City Hall, that is co-named Elizabeth Jennings Place.
A resolution enacted at CB1’s January meeting notes that the Board “strongly urges the City of New York to support this effort to recognize Elizabeth Jennings Graham with a suitable monument in Lower Manhattan where this important historical event took place,” adding, “CB1 requests that the City of New York and the appropriate City agencies with jurisdiction over these suggested sites conduct a review, working with the Harlem Historical Society to identify a suitable site for this monument and determine how it will be funded.”
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