Who Came Before Rosa Parks?


Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that there is a time for everything. And when Rosa Parks got fed up and refused to give up her seat to a white person, it was time. As a matter of fact, it was long past time for a national black civil rights movement which she sparked. Rosa Parks will forever be honored for her brave act of defiance. She is the mother of the African-American civil rights movement. We cannot take that away and nor should we try. She is just too monumental. Was it any wonder that Rosa Parks was the first woman (and second black person) to lie in state in the US Capitol? To give honor to those who came before Rosa Parks is not a slight against her, it is a tribute as her actions culminated all the other transit injustices into one, if you will. There are many who must have not given up their seats or protested at this discriminatory and racist practice whose stories will never be told. But there were some honorable black Americans who also refused to give up their seats, or were force to give up their seats, or even those who organized boycotts.

I want to look at one woman in particular who from what I can find was the first publicized black person to be refused a seat on transit. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings Graham is sometimes mentioned in these discussions, sometimes not. But her decision to fight is definitely a prelude, the first of many to Rosa Parks’ act of defiance and the boycott of all boycotts. We can see that Elizabeth Jennings Graham’s life was chock full of historical events.

On July 16th, 1864, exactly 101 years before the events surrounding Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Elizabeth Jennings found herself running late for church. Making it to the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets, Elizabeth hailed a horse-drawn streetcar. She didn’t notice if it said “Negroes Allowed In This Car” or not. She was the church organist and had to get to church. She and her companion Sarah Adams were ordered off the car. Miss Adams got off but Elizabeth Jennings refused and sparked a series of events that got her thrown off the car, tearing and soiling her dress and bonnet. This was actually the second time she had been ordered off of a street car because she was black, so Elizabeth Jennings decided to fight back through the courts.

With the community’s support and fire power behind her, it was decided. Elizabeth’s father, Thomas L. Jennings, was a prominent tailor and leader in the community, so he along with abolitionist Horace Greeley who was also editor of The New York Daily Tribune, Henry Highland Garnett, and Frederick Douglass got on the case and started a public media campaign. The case was taken on by a young white attorney named Chester A. Arthur, an abolitionist whose political ambitions eventually took him to the White House as the Nation’s 21st president. With Arthur’s help, Jennings sued the Third Avenue Railway Company won the case. Jennings was awarded $250.00 plus 10% and court costs. That particular company desegregated their street cars the next day, but it would take a while longer for the rest of public transit in New York City to be desegregated. That came in 1861.

Another piece of dreadful history experienced by now-Mrs. Charles Graham (Jennings) was the survival of New York Draft Riots. In 1863 the largely Irish immigrant population, already upset that they had to compete with blacks for jobs, rioted when they found the rich could pay for their sons to avoid the draft called by President Lincoln to fight the Civil War. The Grahams’ one year old son died in the mist of that madness, and with the help of a white man, they were able to get him properly buried in the Cypress Hill Cemetery. Later in life, Elizabeth Jennings Graham started a Kindergarten for black children and she taught in free schools that later became NYC Public schools.

There should be a book or movie about this dynamic woman, Elizabeth Jennings Graham. In fact it is long overdue. Though not considered the Mother of the African American Civil Rights Movement, Elizabeth Jennings Graham certainly has the distinction of being the first documented black woman to fight the racist and discriminatory practices of a public (or private) transit company. A bevy of those who just wanted to sit down followed Elizabeth Jennings’ example in acts of defiance in a few different ways.

One month following the Jennings victory, a black man sued the Eighth Avenue Railway Company and won a similar award. All who fought need an honorable mention. This list includes Mrs. Francis Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Mr. Homer Plessy, Mr. John Mitchell Jr., Ms. Irene Morgan, Ms. Sarah Keys, Ms. Sue McDonald, Ms. Aurelia Browder, Miss Claudette Colvin and Mrs. Mary Louise Smith-Ware. To a large degree we already talk about the phenomenal Ida B. Wells and Homer Plessy as they were fairly large in American history. But all of these great Americans were preludes to the Rosa Parks events and the Civil Rights Movement. It is about time they all got a shout out!


Resources relating to Elizabeth Jennings Graham and Preludes to Rosa Parks/Civil Rights Movement

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

President Chester Alan Arthur

President Chester Alan Arthur was a friend to black people. Elizabeth Jennings was the second civil rights case he had taken on (and won). He along with John Jay (yes, grandson of the founding father John Jay) argued the case of Lemmon v. New York, a case against slave owning Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon citing that slavery was illegal in New York. The case resulted in freedom for eight slaves.

Frances Harper

New York Draft Riots

New York Draft Riots Aftermath

Ida B. Wells

Homer Plessy

Irene Morgan

Sarah Keys

Aurelia Browder

Claudette Colvin

Susie McDonald

Mary Louise Smith-Ware

Jo Ann Robinson

Rosa Parks

James F. Blake  (aftermath of the bus driver who ordered Mrs. Parks to give up her seat)

More Than A Bus Ride

High Court Rules Bus Segregation Unconstitutional

Overall African American Civil Rights Movement

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