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Amy Hill Hearth’s ‘Streetcar to Justice’ brings back a forgotten story of black history

During Black History Month, many students learn about Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger — and rode into history.

A century before that, another black woman made a stand against segregation on a New York City streetcar and was thrown into the street for her trouble — twice — but ultimately won in court.

Elizabeth Jennings has been largely forgotten, but Amy Hill Hearth’s book for young readers, Streetcar to Justice, brings the story back.

Hearth, who graduated from the University of Tampa, has written about black history and civil rights activists before. Her 1993 book, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, was based on interviews with the remarkable sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany, daughters of a former slave, who became groundbreaking career women. The book was a bestseller that was adapted into a hit Broadway play and a television movie.

In Streetcar to Justice, Hearth reaches further into history, to an event that occurred on July 16, 1854. Elizabeth Jennings, a schoolteacher in her early 20s, was on her way from her home in Lower Manhattan to choir practice at the First Colored American Congregational Church, where she was the organist.

New York City’s system of horse-drawn streetcars was segregated, with a few cars marked for black riders. The others were for whites, although "respectable" black people were allowed to ride them if other passengers and the car conductors did not object.

Jennings, worried she would be late, flagged down a whites-only streetcar. She and a friend, Sarah Adams, boarded the car and appealed to the conductor. Hearth tells the story of what happened next mainly in Jennings’ own words, taken from a written statement she made the same day: The conductor "took hold of me and I took hold of the window sash and held on. He pulled me until he broke my grasp and I took hold of his coat and held onto that."

The conductor summoned the car’s driver for help. "They then both seized hold of me by the arms and pulled and dragged me flat down on the bottom of the platform. ...

"I screamed murder with all my voice."

They flung Jennings into the street — and she got up and again boarded the streetcar. The conductor drove until he found a policeman, who threw Jennings into the street a second time, leaving her with cuts, bruises and broken bones.

Her family was shocked by her condition. She was the youngest of five children, all of whom had attended school, making them, Hearth writes, "fortunate compared with most American children, black and white. At that time many children did not go to school" but worked on farms or in factories.

Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Jennings, was a tailor, businessman and activist for the rights of black people; he may have been the first black person to receive a U.S. patent, for a dry cleaning method. Her maternal grandfather, Jacob Cartwright, was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.

After calling a doctor, Thomas Jennings went to his friends — among them the former slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass — to spread his daughter’s story. Newspapers covered it widely, and soon Jennings had an attorney, one who would later make his own historic mark as the 21st president of the United States.

When he took Jennings’ case, Chester A. Arthur, son of an antislavery Baptist preacher, was only 24 years old and had been a lawyer for all of six weeks. The decision was made not to file a criminal complaint but to sue the Third Avenue Railroad Company. Hearth writes: "Winning a criminal case would punish a small number of people, the men who assaulted Elizabeth. Winning a civil case, however, could improve the lives of all black New Yorkers, in the present and in the future." And that it did. Even though the judge, lawyers and jury were all white men, Elizabeth Jennings won.

Hearth’s book expertly gives young readers wider context for Jennings’ story. She paints a picture of a much smaller New York, almost unimaginably different from the city today. She notes in one of the book’s numerous sidebars that slavery was practiced in the North as well as the South; New York had its own slave market until 1762, and slave labor was used to build the wall for which Wall Street is named and the original street that’s now Broadway. Images of period illustrations, photos and newspaper clippings help readers imagine the historical era.

Hearth recounts in the book’s last chapters how she came across Jennings’ story while researching Arthur’s crumbling former home in Ossining, N.Y., and how difficult it was to track down facts about Jennings.

But Hearth did piece together the outlines of her later life. A few years after the court case, Jennings married Charles Graham; their only son died in infancy, and Graham died seven years after the marriage. In 1895, Elizabeth opened the first free kindergarten for black children in New York, in her home on W 41st Street. She died at home in 1901, at age 74.

Arthur, elected vice president in 1880, became president after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881. As president, Arthur signed the Geneva Conventions, "which dictate the humane treatment during wartime of civilians, prisoners of war (POWS) and wounded soldiers, and are still largely in effect today."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.
Follow @colettemb.

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Amy Hill Hearth’s ‘Streetcar to Justice’ brings back a forgotten story of black history