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Extraordinary Woman

Extraordinary people - Elizabeth Jennings - (1830–1901) was a black woman who lived in New York City. She figured in an important early civil rights case, when she insisted on her right to ride on a streetcar in 1854. The New Yor Tribune commented on the incident in 1855. ‘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’.

Miss Jennings did not accept this abuse. There was an organized movement among black New Yorkers to end this discrimination, led by notables such as her father, Thomas, Rev. J. W. C. Pennington, and Rev. Henry Hiland Garnet. Her story was publicized by Fredrick Douglass, and received national attention.

Miss Jennings filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company. (The suit was filed in Brooklyn, where the Company was headquartered.) She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur. Her case was handled by the firm’s 24-year-old junior partner: Chester A Arthur, future President of the United States.

In 1855, she received a verdict in her favor. In his charge to the jury, Brooklyn Circuit Court Judge William Rockwell declared:

“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.”

The jury found for Miss Jennings, and awarded damages in the amount of $225.00 (comparable to $5,000 to $10,000 in 2008 dollars), and $22.50 in costs. The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its cars desegregated.

The Third Avenue Railroad, one of the first four street railway companies to be franchised in the city, had been in operation only one year at the time of the Jennings incident. The Jennings case was instrumental in establishing policy for a new service industry. A month after the verdict, a black man was refused admission to a car of the Eighth Avenue Railroad, another of the first four companies. He won a similar judgment confirming that in New York passengers could not be refused a ride based on race. New York’s public transit was fully desegregated by 1861.
 


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