Before Rosa

On December 1, 1955, a white man boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  The bus driver instructed some African-American riders to move to the back of the bus, and famously, Rosa Parks refused.  Her refusal sparked off boycotts and, to a large degree, the American Civil Rights movement of the mid-1900s.  But she was not the first African-American woman to spark a transit civil rights imbroglio — not by a longshot.  A century earlier, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, pictured above, blazed the same trail in New York.

On July 16, 1854, Graham boarded a Manhattan streetcar, on her way to church, where she was an organist.  The streetcar company, a private enterprise at a time well before current civil rights legistlation was enacted, refused to provide transport to African-Americans.  The streetcar conductor ordered her off the vehicle, claiming (falsely) that the streetcar was full.  When Graham refused, the conductor tried to forcably remove her from the streetcar, and, having failed at that, requested help from a police officer.  The police officer assisted the conductor and Graham was taken from the vehicle.  She sued.

Represented by future President of the United States Chester A. Arthur — who was 24 at the time — Graham won.  For her troubles and injuries, she received just under $250.00 (around $5,000, if not more, in today’s dollars).  The judge in the case ruled that “Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence” and the streetcar company desegregated the next day, and within ten years, the entire New York City transit system followed suit.

Bonus fact:  On July 16, 1861 — seven years to the day after Graham was forcibly ejected from the streetcar — Union troops began their march into Virginia, in what would become the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major land battle of the American Civil War.

From the Archives: McLeaned Him Out: The unfortunate luck of the man who owned the land upon which the First Battle of Bull Run was fought.

Related: A biography of Chester A. Arthur. 14 reviews, 4.5 stars.

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