101 years before Rosa Parks, this woman integrated New York City’s public transit

More than a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, another Black woman insisted on her right to ride on a New York City streetcar — an act of defiance that eventually led to the desegregation of the city’s transit systems.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, a schoolteacher in her 20s, boarded a horse-drawn Third Avenue trolley to go to the First Colored American Congregational Church in Lower Manhattan, where she played the organ.

The streetcar’s conductor lied and said the car was full, telling Jennings she had to wait for a car reserved for Black passengers, according to a report by the New York Tribune in 1855. Then, African Americans were only allowed on trolleys with signs reading, “Colored People Allowed in This Train.”

When Jennings refused to disembark, the conductor forcefully threw her off.

“I screamed murder with all my voice and my companion screamed out, ‘You will kill her. Don’t kill her,'” Jennings wrotein a statement.

Reports from the time recounted how Jennings picked herself back up and tried to board the train again until a policeman came and removed her from the car.

A horse-drawn tram along 23rd Street and 4th Avenue in New York City.
African Americans were only allowed on trolleys with signs reading, ‘Colored People Allowed in This Car.’
Bettmann/Getty Images

A legal fight for desegregation

Jennings came from a family who fought for racial equity: Her father, Thomas L. Jennings, was the first Black person to hold a patent, which he obtained in 1821 for a new method of dry cleaning clothing. He bought his family’s freedom with the patent’s proceeds.

The streetcar incident sparked fury among Black New Yorkers, who organized a movement to end racial discrimination on streetcars. With the help of her father, Jennings sued the Third Avenue Railroad Company. She was represented by Arthur, then a 24-year-old lawyer. The attorney would later become the 21st US president.

In February 1855, the judge ruled in favor of Jennings, awarding her $250 in damages and ruling that Black Americans could not be excluded from transit provided “they were sober, well behaved, and free from disease,” according to the New York Daily Tribune.

The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company desegregated its cars. Then, after a decade of continued activism and legal battles, all of New York City’s public transit services were fully desegregated in 1865.