Elizabeth Jennings Graham was an Black American teacher, educator and Civil Right Activist.
Elizabeth was born free in New York City, in March of 1827. Elizabeth was born one of three children from parents Thomas L. Jennings (1792- 1859), and his wife also names Elizabeth Jennings (1798 – March 5, 1873). Her father Thomas was a successful tailor, who owned a dry-cleaning business in New York City. But her father success came from his invention, when he developed a dry- cleaning process, a method of dry-scouring clothes. Her father became the first black man in the United States to earn a patent from the United States Patent Office. Elizabeth mother was a prominent black woman, who was know for her speech on ” The Cultivation of the Black Women’s Mind”. Her mother was also a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, which was founded in 1834.
Like her father and mother, Elizabeth was involved in many social and religious organizations, most prominently as a church organist at the First Colored Congregational Church.
On July 16, 1854 on the Sabbath Sunday, Elizabeth was scheduled to play the organ, but was running late. Elizabeth and her friend Sarah Adams boarded a street car of the Third Avenue Railway Company, but because of their skin color the conductor told the two women to get off, but Elizabeth refused. The conductor who was white tried to physically remove Elizabeth but she resisted even more, first holding onto the window and then holding onto the conductor jacket. It was not until a police officer joined the fray that the two white men managed to push Elizabeth off the street car and onto9 the street. Elizabeth was bruised and her clothes was ruined. Elizabeth and her family were outraged by such disgraceful treatment, and decided to take action. The incident sparked an organized movement among black New Yorkers and the next day they protest on the streets to end racial discrimination. Elizabeth along with her father filed a lawsuit against the railroad company. They also hired attorney Chester Alan Arthur (October 5, 1829 – November 18, 1886), who became the future 21st President of United States.
Consequently, the courts ruled that it had been illegal to forcibly evict Elizabeth solely because of her skin color and Elizabeth was rewarded by the courts $225.00 in damages (comparable to $6,000 to $10,000 in today U.S. dollars). Elizabeth case itself did not lead to total desegregation of all streetcar lines, but it did set a precedent for future trials.
After the trial, Elizabeth continued her career as a church organist and her career as a teacher. In the late 1850s she married Charles Graham. In 1862 the couple had a son named Thomas J. Graham who died of “convulsions” one year after his birth. Her husband Charles died four years later in 1867.
Later in life, Graham opened a kindergarten for Black American children in her home in 1895. Elizabeth Jennings Graham died in June 5, 1901, at the age 74. Elizabeth was buried in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery, along with her son and her husband.