Charlie Buttrey

June 29, 2020

Here is one of those serendipitous historical tidbits one uncovers when searching through the interwebs for something else entirely.

On a hot Sunday morning in July 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, a 24-year-old African-American schoolteacher on her way to church, boarded a Third Avenue Railroad Company horse-car at Pearl and Chatham Streets in lower Manhattan. Soon after boarding, Jennings was ordered to get off the trolley and told to wait for a car that served African American passengers.

She refused.

With the assistance of a local constable, the conductor proceeded to escort her off the trolley by force.

Jennings then sued the driver, the conductor and the railway (which was then a privately-owned entity). I don’t know how she found him, but the lawyer she retained to represent her was then a 24-year-old (and Vermont-born) junior partner at the law firm of Culver, Parker and Arthur.  That young lawyer, Chester Alan Arthur, would go on to become the 21st President of the United States.

In any event, the court ruled that the company had no legal authority to have Jennings removed from the trolley on account of her race, and awarded her damages in the amount of $225. That’s about $7,000 in 2020 dollars, accounting for inflation.  Though the dollar amount is obviously not the point.

Rosa Parks may get all the hype, but Elizabeth Jennings beat her to the punch by 100 years.

Bonus trivia: The next time you play trivia with your friends, ask them to name the President whose birthplace is the northern-most of all Presidents.  Some might guess Gerald Ford (which is not even close; although he grew up in western Michigan, he was born in Omaha), and some may guess Franklin Pierce (a better guess, since he was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire), but the correct answer is Chester Alan Arthur, who was born in Fairfield, Vermont.




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