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Friday, May 7, 2021

Two civil rights icons 100 years apart

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We often hear the story about Rosa Parks being the civil rights icon who sparked the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, which resulted in her arrest by the Montgomery Police for violating Alabama’s segregation laws. Parks’ action ultimately led to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that broke the financial backbone of the Montgomery Transit System, consequently resulting in a Supreme Court ruling one year later that declared Alabama’s segregation laws unconstitutional. Oddly enough, however, many of us have not heard about the first civil rights icon who faced a similar situation in New York City that also resulted in a court ruling declaring segregated Bus ridership unconstitutional. This was another African American woman known by the name of Elizabeth Jennings Graham.     

Graham was an African American citizen of New York City, born and raised in a middle-class family during the 19th century. She spent her life as a Manhattan district schoolteacher dedicating her work to helping young Black children become educated and productive citizens. Her father prospered as an influential business owner in the garment industry, well connected to powerful residents and politicians, who were known to be “movers and shakers” throughout the Manhattan district in New York City. Unlike Graham, Rosa Parks grew up in rural Alabama (Tuscaloosa and Pine City), raised primarily by her grandparents, who were hardworking farm owners with strong moral principles deeply ingrained in her at an early age. Parks went on to become a hardworking seamstress in Montgomery, where she and her husband spent most of their working years. Both Parks and Graham, however, shared a common activism trait that revolved around championing the civil rights of African Americans. 

 Just as Rosa Parks was accosted by racist Montgomery bus drivers and conductors for discriminatory reasons such as ordering African Americans to ride in the back section of buses, so too did Elizabeth Jennings Graham experience the same circumstances, only 100 years earlier, dating back to 1855. As the historical account of Graham’s story goes, one Sunday morning she boarded a whites’ only Manhattan trolley in order to attend her church service.  After boarding the trolley, the conductor/driver told Graham she couldn’t ride that particular trolley because it was for whites only. Graham refused the conductor’s order to get off the trolley, which resulted in a police officer being summoned to the scene. She explained to the white officer she couldn’t be late for her church service because she served as the organist for its congregation. At that point a scuffle occurred resulting in the officer physically manhandling Graham and shoving her off the trolley. Consequently, Graham suffered physical injuries from this incident that eventually led to historical legal action. Like Rosa Park did against the city of Montgomery, Graham filed a civil lawsuit against the city of New York for segregated ridership against its Black citizens. The difference is Graham did it 100 years earlier than Parks in the year of 1855.  

 Rosa Parks and her husband were well-known civil rights advocates throughout the Montgomery area because they actively served in the local NAACP and frequently participated in disputes against racial discrimination throughout the city. Parks also served as the local NAACP Secretary for several years and was known to be well-versed in the fight against racial discrimination, such as her participation in the well-organized successful Montgomery Bus Boycott. Unlike Parks, Graham did not have any formalized training in the fight against racial discrimination; however, like Parks, she possessed the determination of a champion to change discriminatory conditions of Black ridership in the New York city Transit system. As a result of her well executed lawsuit against the state of New York, and her father’s connections to other prominent power players in Manhattan, Graham won a landmark case in 1856 due to her civil rights activism ending segregated ridership in the public transit system.  

It is also noteworthy to mention that in light of Graham’s continued civil rights activism, in 1873 the New York State Legislature passed a Civil Rights Act law that explicitly outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation. Indeed, we are all fortunate to have had such champions as Elizabeth Jennings Graham and Rosa Parks pave the way for significant progress in the chronicles of civil rights history. 

Ron Rice is a retired criminal justice professional, local author and motivational speaker. He can be reached at rice.ronald@sbcglobal.net. 

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