buried stories: elizabeth jennings

Everyone who goes to school in the U.S. learns about Rosa Parks at one point or another, and rightly so. By refusing to give up her seat on a public bus in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, she effectively began the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks became a powerful force for civil rights, in part because at that point things were at the boiling point in the deep south.

Elizabeth Jennings (bet you’ve never heard of her) had a similar experience  a hundred years earlier — in the urban north.  I had never heard about her until I ran across a footnote that brought me to a NYT article called “The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar” (Katharine Greider 11.13.2005).

Ms Jennings had her confrontation with a streetcar driver in 1856, before the civil war and the abolition of slavery. In fact, New York State had only abolished slavery in 1827, three years before Ms Jennings (seen to the right) was born.

This is the kind of thing I love to come across: a relevant story that is little known.  After the court case in which she sued the bus driver and the company (and won), there doesn’t seem to me much detail about her life.

This strikes me as something that needs to be corrected. It also reminds me that prejudice and discrimination were alive and flourishing in the urban north.

EDITED TO ADD:  Please be sure to read Steve’s comment, as he provides some context to Jenning’s story.

2 Replies to “buried stories: elizabeth jennings”

  1. I had not heard of this lady Elizabeth Jennings either. I had vaguely heard of Rosa Parks, and although i didn’t know her name, was aware of her story to some extent.

    What strikes me most is her bravery. In the times that she lived it took an incredible amount of courage to do as she did and flout authority as a black woman with few rights and no respect. I can only imagine how she must have felt, how her heart must have raced, and the fear she must have had, for she was sticking her neck out at a time when being black was a big enough burden, and being female only made it worse.

    It has always made my blood boil to think of these racial laws that so many countries have had in place to varying extents. I just see red when I read of the way white people have treated other races historically. White myself, I cannot imagine how I would have felt living at a time when this type of segregation was considered normal and just.

    Here in Australia for instance, the indigenous people, – Natives of this country, who were here thousands of years before white settlement- were not allowed to hold legal citizenship of their own country until about twenty years ago. The whites who have only been here for the last two hundred and fifty years or so, were legal citizens, but the Aborignes were not. It defies belief! They too had many laws that segregated them from the white population, some of which have only been abolished in comparativly recent years.

    I did not live here then as I grew up in Scotland, but on arriving here and finding this out, I found it hard to comprehend the mind-set that could allow such a massive injustice to happen.
    Indeed, someone must have thought at some point, that this was right and proper and justifiable.
    I feel that many of the worst crimes that have ever been perpetrated on humanity in this world, were not done by evil monsters intent on death and destruction, but by well-meaning intelligent people who loved their families and only wanted to do what was right – even when it wasn’t. A well meaning person on the wrong path is far more dangerous than an evil one who knows what they are doing is wrong.

  2. The Rosa Parks story has been told so many times and in so many ways that it’s hard to know what really happened. But it’s clear that she refused to give up her seat not just because she was tired, but because she wanted to make a test case of the bus company’s policy. This does not diminish her courage or make her less admirable.

    One interesting thing about Elizabeth Jennings (and no, I hadn’t heard of her), is that she wasn’t trying to make a test case–she just wanted to get to church. And it reminds me of the first time I had heard of Frederick Douglass–on the “Profiles in Courage” television show. It must have been in the mid-1960s. But I remember that the point of Douglass’s courage was that he stood up to white abolitionists who wanted him to stop speaking out against prejudice in the North and concentrate only on abolishing slavery. The Jennings case was probably a key point in that conflict. And it shows Chester Arthur in a new light. Just about the only thing we learn about him in school is that Charles Guiteau killed Garfield in vain–Arthur didn’t overturn the civil service reforms. Thank you for this link. I wonder whether “Profiles in Courage” will ever be out in DVD. I must have been 12 or 13 when I saw the show, and some of the stories are still with me.

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