Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Elizabeth Jennings Graham & Chester Arthur


Pennsylvania quilt offered in a James Julia auction featuring a bandana
from Chester A. Arthur's 1880 campaign with Presidential candidate James Garfield.

Garfield was assassinated and Arthur 
 became president in 1881. 

Arthur is not a memorable president but as a young man, a New York City lawyer, he had a reputation as a rebellious agitator for civil rights. Born in Vermont, he was raised by parents Malvina Stone and Baptist preacher William Arthur, who were driven to New York by neighbors infuriated at William's antislavery sermons.

Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886) at about 30

Chester came to New York City in the early '50s to work as a law student with abolitionist E.D. Culver,
becoming a partner in the firm of Culver, Parker & Arthur in 1853.

A year earlier the firm had taken on the case of eight enslaved Virginians in transit through New York to Texas. Once in the free state of New York where slavery had ended in 1827 their case was taken up by Louis Napoleon, a freeman who petitioned the court to liberate them and with Culver and Arthur won the case.

In 1855 Culver, Parker & Arthur took on the suit of Elizabeth Jennings, a 25-year-old free African-American woman who had been removed from a whites-only streetcar in the summer of 1854.

Corner of Pearl & Chatham Streets in Lower Manhattan, 1863
One hailed a streetcar, which stopped to take you aboard for a 6-cent fare.

Elizabeth is now remembered as a church organist on her way to Sunday services who, like Rosa Parks a hundred years later, impulsively refused to follow an unreasonable demand. The conductor physically removed her and companion Sara Adams. Elizabeth sought legal redress from Chester Arthur and the attorneys won a judgment in a Brooklyn court against the Third Avenue Railway Company, asking for $500 in damages, over $15,000 in today's terms. They won half that amount.

Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827-1901)
Poor photo of her later in life.

City directory, mid 1850s

In the 1850s Elizabeth was living in what we call Tribeca with brother James in a boarding house at 167 Church Street run by her parents Thomas L. and Elizabeth Cartwright Jennings. James was a teacher, the same career Elizabeth would choose. Siblings William, Matilda and Thomas II are living on their own.

Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859)

Elizabeth's was not a typical African-American family at the time. Thomas Jennings, once a tailor, had made money from a patented dry-cleaning process. He bought his wife's freedom and then used his time and fortune to become a civil rights activist, with a particular interest in public transportation. With James McCune Smith and James W.C. Pennington in 1855 he founded the New York Legal Rights Association, dedicated to fighting segregated transportation.

His son Thomas, a Boston dentist, was evicted from a whites-only rail car in Massachusetts in 1841.

Account by a white friend of Thomas II in The Liberator,
November 2, 1841

Thomas Sr. testified in court in the related James W.C. Pennington case in 1859.

Thomas Downing (1791-1866)

Famous New York oyster chef and restauranteur Thomas Downing (born the same year as Thomas Jennings) was the plaintiff in at least two cases against transportation companies, the first in 1838. In 1855 he was evicted from a whites-only car on the Harlem Railroad and severely beaten.

As peers and neighbors Downing and Jennings must have known each other
(and possibly worked together.)

Portraying Thomas Jennings's daughter as a young woman who spontaneously caused a precedent- setting rebellion ignores the probable history of what was going on among the African-American activists in the city. 

Library of Congress

Perhaps they and their lawyers realized that men removed forcibly from streetcars did not elicit much public sympathy or many favorable rulings. But what if a pretty, young church organist was the victim of such violence? Was it a set-up engineered by the Jenningses and the sympathetic law firm Culver, Parker & Arthur? Did Elizabeth and friend Sara agree to participate in a drama?

Today we'd rather see Elizabeth as an earlier-day Rosa Parks but do remember that portraying her as a victim falls into stereotyping women as helpless---exactly the image those civil rights activists hoped to exploit.

Star picturing Garfield and Arthur once in Julie Powell's collection;
 now in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Elizabeth continued to make news. She graduated from the "Colored Normal School," a segregated teacher's college and hoped to join other city music teachers at the Academy of Music celebrating the event. But as reported in The Liberator and other papers in 1857 she and Helen Appo were banished from the stage. No less than Susan B. Anthony took up the protest at a state teachers' convention.

Elizabeth was her father's daughter. Many young Black women were insulted but few enlisted Susan B. in their cause.

Elizabeth married Charles Graham (1830-1867) of Long Branch, New Jersey, a year before the Civil War began. They spent the first few war years in New York City, which became even more difficult for African-Americans as plug-uglies and working people expressed resentment of the antislavery cause and new conscription laws. The New York Draft Riots in July, 1863 resulted in over 100 deaths and the burning of the city's Colored Orphan Asylum.

The Grahams had their own disaster to deal with as their baby Thomas J. Graham died during the riots, forcing his parents to dodge the insurrectionists while trying to give him a funeral. They left the city for New Jersey where Charles died a few years after the war.

Elizabeth had a savings account at the Freedman's Savings Bank, summarizing her post-war life. She continued to teach, opening an innovative Kindergarten class for Black children in New York with two friends.

1882 City Directory

Brooklyn Eagle account, February, 1855

You may want to continue to imagine Elizabeth in her role as a victim of bigotry acting on impulse, lucky enough to find young Chester Arthur as a lawyer, but you also might prefer to think of the law firm and the Jennings family as sophisticated partners in a successful small battle in a large war.

We can give Elizabeth and Chester A. a little more respect.

Many books and articles discuss Elizabeth's protest from the Rosa Parks perspective that resonates in our current culture. But was she a knowing protagonist in a carefully planned event? 

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