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Archive for February 26th, 2022

Michal Scott: Elizabeth Jennings Graham — The Rosa Parks of the 1850s (Contest)
Saturday, February 26th, 2022

UPDATE: The winner is…Colleen C!

Everyone knows who Rosa Parks is and why we know about her, but very few know about Elizabeth Jennings Graham.

Born free in 1827, Elizabeth grew up in New York, a child of the African-American bourgeoisie known as the “Talented Tenth.” Hers was a family of activists committed to uplifting the race. Her mother wrote an address for ten-year-old Elizabeth to deliver at the meeting of the Ladies Literary Society of New York. The society was founded by New York’s elite African-American women to promote self-improvement through community activities, reading, and discussion. Elizabeth’s speech focused on how the neglect of cultivating the mind would keep African-Americans inferior to whites. Her father helped found the Wilberforce Philanthropic Society, an African-American self-help organization named after the British abolitionist.

Elizabeth worked as a schoolteacher in the African Free School then in public schools and as a church organist at the First Colored American Congregational Church. On Sunday, July 16, 1854 on her way to church, she and a friend boarded a horse-drawn streetcar in Lower Manhattan. By custom, this was allowable if no White passengers objected. None did but the conductor still ordered them off. Despite being attacked by the conductor and the driver, Elizabeth refused to be moved. She was finally forced off with the help of a policeman.

This incident, much like Rosa Parks’ arrest, led to an organized movement to desegregate streetcars. The movement’s leaders were Jennings’ father, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and Rev. James W.C. Pennington. Her father filed a lawsuit on her behalf against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company. Her case was handled by 24-year-old Chester A. Arthur, who became the 21st president of the U.S. In 1855, the Brooklyn Circuit Court ruled in her favor and awarded her damages and her legal fees. Even though the Third Avenue Railroad Company desegregated their line the day after the ruling, it took another ten years before public transportation in New York was fully desegregated.

Elizabeth married Charles Graham in 1860, survived the New York Draft Riots of 1863, moved with her family to New Jersey, then after her husband’s death in 1867, returned to New York. She went on to found and operate the first kindergarten for African-American children in her home. She died at age 74 in 1901.

One hundred years later, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a White man sparked the historic Montgomery Alabama Bus Boycott of 1955 and led to an Elizabeth-Jennings-style desegregation victory in 1956. Maybe, someday, a young person will write a blog post of their own entitled, Rosa Parks: the Elizabeth Jennings of the 1950s.

For a chance to win a $10 Amazon gift card leave a comment about an undersung historic event or person you’ve learned about.

Better To Marry Than To Burn

Wife Wanted: Marital relations as necessary. Love not required nor sought…

A bridal lottery seems the height of foolishness to ex-slave Caesar King, but his refusal to participate in the town council’s scheme places him in a bind. He has to get married to avoid paying a high residence fine or leave the Texas territory. After losing his wife in childbirth, Caesar isn’t ready for romance. A woman looking for a fresh start without any emotional strings is what he needs.
Queen Esther Payne, a freeborn black from Philadelphia, has been threatened by her family for her forward-thinking, independent ways. Her family insists she marry. Her escape comes in the form of an ad. If she must marry, it will be on her terms. But her first meeting with the sinfully hot farmer proves an exciting tussle of wills that stirs her physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
In the battle of sexual one-upmanship that ensues, both Caesar and Queen discover surrender can be as fulfilling as triumph.

Excerpt from Better to Mary Than to Burn…

“I do many things, Miss Payne.” He pushed up the brim of his hat and grinned, fired up by the hazel flame sparking in her eyes. “Pretending to be a gentleman doesn’t number among them.”

She firmed her full lips into a thin, angry line. “But you do aspire to establish a legacy—like a gentleman would.”

“If marrying you to leave a legacy makes me a gentleman, then I must agree. Although, your letter made it clear you weren’t looking for a gentleman. In fact, if you had your way, you wouldn’t be looking for a man at all…gentlemanly or otherwise.”

She responded with a slight rise in her eyebrows.

He thumbed over his shoulder. “Our marriage carriage awaits.”

He sauntered toward his wagon, not surprised to find when he looked back, her highness hadn’t moved. But uncertainty colored her imperiousness and rippled in her frown.

“The stagecoach back East isn’t due until midday tomorrow,” he shouted.

“Hmmpf.” She turned her back on him, presenting a bustle-less skirt that outlined a behind, round and ripe for his inspection.

He huffed out a breath, cupped his hands and shouted again.

“We’ve a minister waiting…if you’re staying.”

Of course, she was staying. She’d never have agreed to marry him if she’d had another choice. Philadelphia’s Lombard Street, a bastion of black privilege it may be, had only one place for a daughter of Lesbos who wouldn’t marry: the insane asylum. Marriage to him here in the West was her last—and probably only—refuge.