In 1854, traveling was full of danger. Omnibus accidents were commonplace. Pedestrians were regularly attacked by the Five Points’ gangs. Rival police forces watched and argued over who should help. Pickpockets, drunks, and kidnappers were all part of the daily street scene in old New York.
None of this was on Elizabeth Jennings’s mind as she climbed the platform onto the Chatham Street horsecar. But her destination and that of the country took a sudden turn when the conductor told her to wait for the next car because it had “her people” in it. When she refused to step off the bus, she was assaulted by the conductor who was aided by a NY police officer. On February 22, 1855, Elizabeth Jennings v. Third Avenue Rail Road case was settled. Seeking $500 in damages, the jury stunned the courtroom with a $250 verdict in Lizzie’s favor. Future US president Chester A. Arthur was Jennings attorney and their lives would be forever onward intertwined. This is the story of what happened that day. It’s also the story of Jennings and Arthur’s families, the struggle for equality, and race relations. It’s the history of America at its most despicable and most exhilarating. Yet few historians know of Elizabeth Jennings or the impact she had on desegregating public transit.
Jerry Mikorenda’s articles and op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, The Boston Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wall Street Journal as well as various other magazines. He is also a graduate of the Master’s Program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School.
A member of SCBWI and BIO (Biographers International Organization), his history profiles are included in the 2010 Encyclopedia of New York City and on the Gotham Center’s History Blog. He lives in Northport, NY.
“Here's a story every American should know. Cleanly and smartly, Jerry Mikorenda brings burgeoning 19th-century New York alive, laying bare the connections between his heroine's courageous stand and the long struggle for civil rights. America’s First Freedom Rider is an impressive and inspiring weaving of our history and a timely reminder that one person can change the world.”—Stewart O’Nan, author of The Circus Fire and Everyday People
“Jerry Mikorenda brings to light the little-known story of civil rights champion Elizabeth Jennings, who broke racial barriers by integrating New York’s transit system a century before Rosa Parks. This is an important addition to the city’s complex history and one that should not be missed.”--Lisa Keller, Professor of History, Purchase College SUNY & Executive Editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City (2nd Ed.)