Rosa Parks is cemented in history for her defiance against racial injustice. The seemingly small act of refusing to give up a bus seat created waves during a time of immense racial prejudice and meant much more than just that. It was a difficult time to defy 'the law' openly, and Rosa Park's bravery is what has stood the test of time. However, a woman named Elizabeth Jennings Graham has gone somewhat uncovered by most history tellers. Her story mirrors Rosa Parks,' yet it has not gotten as much attention in later years. So, who is Elizabeth Jennings Graham, and how did she inspire Rosa Parks?
A lesson on the Civil Rights Movement is not complete without mentioning how Parks' resisted giving up her seat in the area designated to Black people on the bus for a white passenger. This defiance led to her arrest and snowballed into a town-wide bus boycott in Montgomery which lasted 381 days. The Montgomery Bus Boycott resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional. A lesser-known story is that Elizabeth Jennings experienced a similar fate 100 years earlier.
Born in March 1827 to free parents, Thomas L. Jennings and Elizabeth Cartwright Jennings, Elizabeth Jennings Graham grew up in an influential family. Her father was a successful tailor who also owned a patent for dry scouring, a method to dry clean clothing, which the U.S government awarded him in 1821. Her mother was a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York. As a prominent community member, she endorsed the importance of black women developing their minds and being proactive. Jennings worked as a schoolteacher for 35 years and founded the first kindergarten for black children.
What began as a late morning for Jennings would turn out to be a moment in history. On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings boarded a streetcar to attend church, where she played the organ. The conductor ordered her to step out of the car as streetcars were reserved for white people only. In response, she refused, and after a forceful attempt at removing her, the police arrived on the scene and removed her from the car.
Like Parks' incident, the event sparked a movement among the Black residents of New York against streetcars' policy of racial discrimination and gained nationwide attention. The matter went to court and ruled in her favor in 1855. As a result, she received a monetary settlement of $250, and the company that unfairly ejected her from the car, the Third Avenue Railroad Company, desegregated their vehicles. Following Jennings' victory, the Civil Rights Act was passed in New York in 1873, prohibiting racial discrimination on public transport.
It is of utmost importance to uncover the unsung heroes in history. While many know about Rosa Parks, very few are privy to the movement Elizabeth Jennings unknowingly started by standing up for herself when Black people were expected to cower to racially discriminatory laws. History goes more profound than what we are taught in schools, and many important stories that teach us more about significant roots go unnoticed.