Elizabeth Graham

by Samia Silver from Warren in United States minor outlying islands

Early Life:

Elizabeth Jennings Graham was born free in March of 1827, in New York City. Her father, Thomas L. Jennings was born a free man, while her mother, Elizabeth Cartwright was born enslaved. Thomas L. Jennings was one of the first Black people to hold a patent in his name. The patent was for developing dry scouring, a new method to dry clean clothes. With the money from the patented dry-cleaning process, he bought his family's freedom. Elizabeth Cartwright was a notable woman in her local community, as she was one of the founding members of the Ladies Literary Society of New York where New York's elite black women promoted self-improvement through community activities, reading, and discussion. She wrote the speech that 10-year-old Elizabeth Graham delivered at the Ladies Literary Society of New York. The speech talked about how if black people don’t exercise their minds, they would remain inferior to whites and whites would keep thinking that blacks don’t have any mind at all. Graham also said that black people had to exercise their minds and take action like raising money to help escaping enslaved people or assisting the poor. 

Her Experiences and Impact 

When Graham was 24 years old, working as a school teacher, she would take the bus to commute but also to go to church. The buses were a primary form of transportation. It was especially common in the large city of New York. However, at this time buses were segregated. Buses that allowed for black people stated: “color persons allowed”. One day, there were no colored streetcars in sight. So Graham made the brave decision to board the streetcar that did not have the sign that stated black people were permitted. She faced instant adversity. The driver stated the car was full, a blatant and obvious lie. Graham sat down, despite the glares and comments from bystanders. Continuing the force, the driver stated that he would have Graham removed by force. Elizabeth Graham continued to hold her ground. The police were called and they hauled Graham off to jail on July 16th. She was then released and met by a hostile crowd the following day. The Graham family had good connections and was a fairly wealthy family. Elizabeth’s father was very angry with the events that took place and he decided to take the matter to court. Chester A. Author was her lawyer, and would later be elected as the 21st president. Graham won her case, integrating buses and streetcars in the state of  New York.

Court Case summary and explanation:

In the 1800s, the streetcars in New York City were the only form of public transportation. However, they were commanded and privately owned by various companies, and these companies often refused to let black citizens board the cars. They were expected to walk due to the lack of public transportation that would welcome them. However, Elizabeth Graham decided that enough was enough and tried to board a car that typically only allowed white passengers and refused to get off. The conductor of the train car resorted to violence to remove her from the streetcar based solely on her race. She took the issue to court, and it was eventually ruled in her favor. As a result, all privately-owned streetcars were removed from New York City and segregated public transport was made illegal. Her court case was specifically against the New York streetcar company known as the “Third Ave. Railroad”. That was the company that owned the streetcar she had been forcefully ejected from. She was able to win the case and revolutionized public transportation in New York City.


Page created on 5/19/2023 3:03:05 AM

Last edited 5/25/2023 1:42:10 PM

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