New York's First Freedom Rider
By Jerry Mikorenda
In today’s world, the basic right to equal public transportation is a given, but that wasn’t always the case. One hundred and sixty years ago, one of the most important civil rights battles took place on the streets of New York — and hardly anyone remembers it.
The unlikely combatants were a female African American schoolteacher and the powerful Third Avenue Rail Road — a private omnibus corporation. As was the case with the rest of the country in the mid-19th century, African American life remained segregated from the ebb and flow of white Manhattan society. With only a few “Colored Only” horse-drawn omnibuses to ride, free blacks were limited to where they could work, live and travel. As the abolitionist pastor Samuel Cornish oft warned his congregation, “Brethren, attend to business by mail or foot.”
That changed inexorably on Sunday, July 16, 1854. By all counts, it was a sweltering day. Schoolteacher and organist Elizabeth Jennings and her friend Sarah Adams were late for church choir and hailed the first omnibus they saw on Chatham (now Park Row and Spruce) Street. Repelled by the Third Avenue conductor, Jennings insisted she had the same right to ride as white New Yorkers did. A verbal fight ensued that ended with both women tossed from the bus. In an act of defiance, Lizzie jumped back onto the streetcar and the conductor, driver and a policeman brutally beat her for refusing to leave.
Lizzie’s father Thomas L. Jennings was the first African American to receive a U.S. patent. A tailor by trade, he invented dry cleaning (scouring) and amassed his wealth from royalties and shrewd business deals. Jennings and his family could have easily led extravagant and carefree lives. Instead, he funneled his wealth into abolitionist causes that his family embraced and worked tirelessly to accomplish. Lizzie’s mother was among the founders of the Ladies Literary Society that raised money to help escaping slaves (among them Frederick Douglass) and assisted the poor. Her brothers fought against slavery with well-known Boston abolitionists William Nell, Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison.
Whether intending to or not, Lizzie was an early feminist. She learned to play the organ not to entertain marriage suitors, but to use her skill to raise funds for antislavery causes and led a choir — both male dominated professions. Likewise, she became a teacher at a time when the white ruling class didn’t believe black women could be serious students let alone command a classroom. At nearly every step of her life, she bucked a system that made African American women invisible. With each challenge, Lizzie chose freedom over accepting a life of oppression.
A Community Responds
Lizzie’s name was now on the long list of African American women beaten for attempting to use mass transit. Sojourner Truth nearly had her right shoulder blade broken by a Washington D.C., conductor for entering a “whites only” streetcar. Harriet Tubman fought with a New Jersey railroad worker who threw her into the baggage car. Traveling by steamboat, white patrons forced celebrated New England educator Susan Paul to leave their cabin during a storm. Black men were victims too. Frederick Douglass and Lizzie’s brother refused to leave white’s only railcars and suffered for it. The Reverend J.W.C. Pennington and David Ruggles grappled with New York City conductors. None of them was able to resolve the issue of equal rights to public transportation.
The vicious attack on Lizzie galvanized the black community. Led by her father, a Legal Rights Association formed to battle discrimination. To take on this insurmountable task, Jennings hired Erasmus Culver who won the Lemmon Slave trial a few years earlier. Culver passed the case onto an untried attorney in his firm, Chester A. Arthur. Elizabeth Jennings sued the Third Avenue Rail Road in the Second District Supreme Court in Brooklyn for $500 in damages.
The trial took place on February 22, 1855. Against all odds, the future 21st President of the United States won his very first case. An all-white male jury awarded Jennings $250 in damages. The news caused such excitement at the New York Tribune that publisher Horace Greeley hurriedly wrote the headline “A Wholesome Verdict” along with the article on the trial from his reporter’s notes. For years afterwards, the African American community celebrated February 22 as “Lizzie Jennings Day.”
Rights Battle Continues
After Lizzie’s victory, the First, Second and Fourth Avenue omnibus companies followed the example of the Third Avenue Rail Road by opening their doors to all New Yorkers. The Sixth Avenue line remained the biggest obstacle to ending transit segregation in New York City. Reverend JWC Pennington had an ongoing feud with the company since it began in 1851. In May of 1855, the hostilities bubbled over when a Sixth Avenue conductor beat the reverend and tossed him from the bus. A three-day trial ensued covered by the New York Times under the headline, “An Important and Interesting Trial — Can Colored People Ride in City Cars?”
Pennington lost his case, but the Legal Rights Association kept up the pressure with sit-ins and protests forcing a lawsuit against the Eighth Avenue line for another beating incident. Eventually, the railroad agreed to a settlement that included a change in its policy allowing blacks to travel in all cars. The Ninth Avenue line followed suit as well. Even the dreaded Sixth Avenue route yielded to the inevitable.
During the 1863 draft riots, African Americans were banned from public transit, but city rail systems gradually reinstated policies to allow blacks full access to all service. In 1864, this chapter in Manhattan’s history closed. Ellen Anderson, widow of a Civil War hero, sued the Eighth Avenue Railroad for removing her from a bus with white passengers. Anderson easily won her case with former adversaries from the railroad defending her right to ride unobstructed.
Life of Service
After her sensational trial, Lizzie continued to fight for social justice. She appeared at fundraisers and corresponded with black leaders Fredrick Douglass, William Nell and Timothy Thomas Fortune. She was the guardian for the orphaned Edward Wright who became a crusading lawyer defending boxer Jack Johnson, journalist Ida B. Wells and many blacks involved in the 1919 Chicago race riots. Late in life, Lizzie established the first kindergarten for African-American children in the country. The school lasted more than twenty years.
Elizabeth Jennings died in 1901. She was buried in the family plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn. In 2007, the junction of Park Row and Spruce Street was renamed Elizabeth Jennings Place. After all these years, a bus still stops there.
Jerry Mikorenda is a writer living in Northport, NY. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, The Boston Herald and various other magazines and blogs, as well as the 2010 Encyclopedia of New York City. He recently completed a biography on the life of Elizabeth Jennings, The First Freedom Rider.
Court Record, Brooklyn Eagle, February 23, 1855
A Wholesome Verdict, New York Daily Tribune, February 23, 1855
An Important and Interesting Trial – Can Colored People Ride in City Cars? New York Daily Times, December 18, 1856
Right of Colored People to Ride in the Street Cars Important Case, New York Times, June 30, 1864
Dorothy Sterling, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (1997)