Elizabeth (Jennings) Graham was born in 1827 as a free person. Her father had invented the dry cleaning process and was the first African American to be awarded a patent. He used the earnings from the patent to buy his family out of slavery.
Elizabeth grew up in a family who were advocates for uplifting African American lives. Elizabeth taught in the African Free School and served as an organist in her church.
On one Sunday when she rushed to get to church, she entered a streetcar. The conductor ordered her removed from the streetcar. She refused. Police were called to have her removed.
The incident created a stir in the African American community and drew national attention as well. Elizabeth’s father filed a lawsuit where she was. She was represented in court by future U.S. President Chester Arthur.
She won the case, and the streetcar line became available for African American riders. Unfortunately, the other streetcar lines continued to exclude African Americans from riding. It took 10 years and additional lawsuits to open the streetcar lines to African Americans.
When the Civil War began, Whites in Manhattan rioted in opposition to being drafted into a war they considered to be about African American freedom. The riots led to worsening relations between White and Black residents. Elizabeth and her husband moved to New Jersey where he died. She returned to NYC to found the first kindergarten for African Americans.
Elizabeth’s courage to challenge the segregation of NYC’s streetcar system preceded Rosa Park’s more famous civil action by 100 years. Like many hidden heroes, Elizabeth’s efforts have long been forgotten by most of us.
* * *
“The legal battle against segregation is won, but the community battle goes on.”
– Dorothy Day (social activist)