Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Revolutionary Of The Week

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jennings

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jennings (1830-1901), a 24 year old school teacher from New York, set out on July 16th, 1854 to go to the First Colored Congregational Church on 6th St. & 2nd Avenue where she played the organ.

Lizzie waited for the bus on the corner of Chatham & Pearl. To get around New York in 1854 often involved having to ride a large horse-drawn carriage for a fee. But for black New Yorkers like Lizzie Jennings, it was not so simple.

Manhattan may have been home to the nation's largest African-American population at the time, but trying to ride the bus with whites was a different story. Some buses had large signs that read " Colored Persons Allowed", while all other buses without signs were governed by an arbitrary system of passenger/conductor choice.

According to journalist Jasmin K. Williams, "Drivers determined who could ride." She added that NYC bus drivers , "carried whips to keep undesirable passengers off." At Jennings church, there was a current movement for public transportation equality with the Rev. J.W.C. Pennington.

On July 16th, 1854, though, Lizzie Jennings decided that she would take the bus without the "Colored Persons Allowed" sign. According to the New York Tribune, she next, " got upon one of the Company's cars...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."

Jennings, outraged, told the conductor she was " a respectable person, born and raised in this city." She called the conductor "a good-for-nothing, impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church."

The Tribune continues, " 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."

But what the conductor & the police did not know at the time, was that Jennings was well connected. Her father was quite an important businessman & community leader with ties to two major black churches in the city. Jennings, not satisfied with the huge rally at her church the following day, hired the law firm of Culver, Parker & Arthur & took the Third Avenue Railway Company to court. Her lawyer happened to be Chester A. Arthur, who would go on to become the 21st President upon the death of James A. Garfield in 1881.

In early 1855, Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court ruled in Jenning's favor. She claimed $ 500 worth of damages, but some jury members had other ideas as to black people's rights. So, Jennings ended up with $ 225, plus $ 22.50 for court costs. Regardless of this, the very next day, the Third Avenue Railway Company issued an order to admit African-Amercians onto their buses, & by 1860, all of the city's street & rail cars were desegregated.