Today for #BlackHistoryMonth we’re highlighting a lesser-known figure who fought for civil rights long before the Civil Rights Movement. Before there was Rosa Parks, there was a similar figure, Elizabeth Jennings Graham. Graham was born a free woman in New York City in the early 1800s. She spent most of her early life working within her church as an organist. On July 16, 1854, Graham was riding a trolley on her way to church when she was thrown off by the conductor due to the trolley company not allowing African Americans to ride. This sparked a protest that gained support throughout the country and was even taken to court. Because there were no official state laws forbidding her from riding, the court ruled in favor of Graham and her case.
Graham continued her work as an organist throughout her life and later went on to become an educator for children. She opened a kindergarten for African American children in her home in 1895, and it ran for six years until her death in 1901. New York continues to celebrate Graham’s impact in the fight for civil rights today. Part of a street in Lower Manhattan was renamed “Elizabeth Jennings Place” in 2007, and plans are currently underway for a statue to be erected of her in Grand Central Terminal.
Graham’s fight to end segregation and ultimate victory set a precedent that allowed other African Americans to join the cause for civil rights. While her impact may be lesser known than Rosa Parks’ case in the 1950s, she helped others see that they could fight for change at a time when society didn’t want change to happen.
Last updated February 15, 2022