Dominion of New York

Women's History Month

March 19, 2012

7 Heroic Black Women of the 1800s

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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e love history here, in part because we love stories. So Black History Month and Women’s History Month are just excuses for us do what we always do: nerd out and obsess over fascinating historical figures.

Our slideshow below features short stories about six black heroines who shaped history. We’ve also written about a woman without a photo or even a last name — Sally, the enslaved Tennessee woman who helped liberate all three of her children from slavery.

Pay your respects to these fierce women by leaving a comment below and tune into WBAI 99.5 FM on March 21 from 4 pm to 5 pm, when we’ll be talking with journalist Hugh Hamilton about the role of black women in U.S. history. Not in New York? No excuse. Live stream it.

DoNY is the digital magazine for creative and forward-thinking black people who love New York and want to make the most of their lives here. We host events and provide information that helps you connect socially, politically, culturally and economically to their community and to the rest of the city. Fan us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

1. Elizabeth Jennings Graham, 1830-1901

Picture 1 of 5

Elizabeth Jennings Graham photo source: Kansas Historical Foundation, photo circa 1854-1860

(1830-1901) Elizabeth Jennings was a New York City schoolteacher whose 1854 defiance of a streetcar conductor's order to leave his car helped desegregate public transit in New York City. With the help of her prominent father, the wealthy businessman Thomas L. Jennings, she filed and won a lawsuit against the streetcar company. Thomas L. Jennings, the first African-American to win a patent, owned a large clothing store and co-founded the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church. He used most of his profits in the fight against slavery and racism, founding a Legal Rights Association, which fought for civil rights through the courts. The association's first case was his daughter's. The judge in her case issued a ruling that prohibited discrimination in public transit against blacks. Chester A. Arthur, who later become the 21st President of the United States was her attorney. While she won her suit, only after blacks won another anti-discrimination lawsuit in 1859, did New York City's public transit substantially desegregate. Later, with school's remaining segregated, Jennings founded New York City's first black kindergarten. -- Sources: Speak out in Thunder Tones, Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners 1787-1865 and The New York Times

Here is her description of the confrontation that led to the lawsuit. It was read aloud in mass meeting of black New Yorkers.

Sarah E. Adams and myself walked down to the corner of Pearl and Chatham Sts. to take the Third-Av. cars. We got on the platform when the conductor told us to wait for the next car. I told him I could not wait, as I was in a hurry to go to church.

He then told me that the other car had my people in it, that it was appropriated for "my people." I told him I had no people. I wished to go to church and I did not wish to be detained. He still kept driving me off the car; said he had as much time as I had and could wait just as long. I replied, "Very well, we'll see." He waited some minutes, when the driver becoming impatient, he said, "Well, you may go in, but remember, if the passengers raise any objections you shall go out, whether or no, or I'll put you out."

I told him I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born, and that he was a good-for-nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent person while on their way to church. He then said he would put me out. I told him not to lay hands on me. He took hold of me and I took hold of the window sash. He pulled me until he broke my grasp. I took hold of his coat and held onto that. He also broke my grasp from that. He then ordered the driver to fasten his horses and come and help him put me out of the cars. Both seized hold of me by the arms and pulled and dragged me down on the bottom of the platform, so that my feet hung one way and my head the other, nearly on the ground.

I screamed, "Murder," with all my voice and my companion screamed out, "You will kill her. Don't kill her." I went again in the car and the conductor said, "You shall sweat for this." Then told the driver to drive until he saw [a police] officer or a Station House. They get [a police] officer on the corner of Walker and Bower.

The officer without listening to anything I had to say thrust me out and then tauntingly told me to get redress if I could. This the conductor also told me. He wrote his name, Moss, and the car, No. 7, but I looked and saw No. 6 on the back of the car. After dragging me off the car, he drove me away like a dog, saying not to be talking there and raising a mob or fight.

When I told the conductor I did not know where he was born, he answered, "I was born in Ireland." I made answer it made no difference where a man was born, provided he behaved himself and did not insult genteel persons.

I would have come myself but am quite sore and stiff from the treatment I received from those monsters in human form yesterday afternoon. This statement I believe to be correct and it is respectfully submitted.

Elizabeth Jennings
Frederick Douglass' Paper, July 28, 1854

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


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