Elizabeth Jennings Vs. The Third Avenue Company Streetcar
The layers of history run deep through Lower Manhattan. For Black History Month and Women’s History Month we will be looking at those places in our neighborhood that illuminate the stories of the African diaspora in New York. Kamau Ware, founder of the Black Gotham Experience, is authoring a series to help show us exactly what ground we stand upon.
On the corner of Park Row and Pearl Street, an unsung event demonstrated the essential, and too often unrecognized, role that Black women played in the struggle for progress. In July 1854, a group of white men forcefully removed a 24-year-old Black woman from a Third Avenue Company streetcar.
Although slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827, the fugitive slave law passed in 1850 heightened hostilities toward the Black community. That morning, Elizabeth Jennings may have taken a couple extra moments getting ready for church and was on her way with haste. She talked the streetcar conductor into letting her ride in a non-segregated car, because she was a “respectable” woman who was behind schedule and was the organist at the First Congregational Church.
The grudging compromise offered by the conductor was that, if a passenger objected to her presence, she would have to leave. Jennings wasn’t having it that Sunday. The conductor’s suggestion was enough for her to give such a biting diatribe that the streetcar was abruptly stopped. The conductor enlisted another white man to help him drag her off the streetcar.
The company was successfully sued in February 1828 and as a consequence, segregated public transportation in New York City was headed towards its end. On this day when we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, it is vital to note that on that summer day more than 165 years ago, Jennings’ bravery gave form and substance to the idea of intersectionality.
Previously: Black Sam