In the 1850s, horse-drawn carriages were a common way to travel throughout New York City. The next most used mode of transportation was the omnibus drawn by horses. In 1854, NYC streetcars functioned independently and predominately segregated. Elizabeth Jennings Graham had a major qualm with this and demanded that all people be able to patronize streetcars. Graham won her case in 1855 and in 1856, NYC transit system was integrated.
On July 16, 1854, Graham was on her way to a church service at the First Colored Congregational Church. She played the organ. Running late, she boarded a streetcar on Third Avenue in Manhattan. The streetcar operator demanded that she gets off the car due to crowding. This was untrue. When Graham protested, she was forcibly removed by the conductor and a police officer.
An excerpt in the New York Tribune by Horace Greeley in February 1855 stated, “She got upon one of the company’s cars last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.”
The incident was highly broadcasted; a story recalling the incident appeared in Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star. The streetcar event also initiated a movement to eradicate racial discrimination in NYC, spearheaded by Graham’s father Thomas L. Jennings, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and Rev. James W.C. Pennington.
Jennings father filed a lawsuit on the behalf of Graham against the Third Avenue Railroad Company, the conductor and driver at the Brooklyn Circuit Court. In 1855, the court ruled in favor of Graham. She was awarded $250 and $22.50 in costs. The very next day, the Third Avenue Railroad company directed that their cars be desegregated. This ruling did not affect other streetcar companies; it wasn’t until 1865 that all NYC public transit systems desegregated their cars.
Graham was born in March 1827. On June 18, 1860, in Manhattan, NY, Graham married Charles Graham. They had a son named Thomas J. Graham who died on July 16, 1863, at the age of one. His death occurred during the New York Draft Riots. Subsequently, the Graham’s moved Eatontown, New Jersey.
After the death of her husband in the late 1860s or early 1870s, Graham moved back to Manhattan.
Graham founded and ran NYC’s first kindergarten for black youth; the school was at her residence, 247 West 41st Street.
Graham died on June 5, 1901. She was buried at the Cypress Hills Cemetery alongside her husband and son. She was 74 years old.
On January 2, 2018, an autobiography about Graham titled Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York. It was written by Amy Hill Hearth.