Today, our featured Black Educator is Elizabeth Jennings Graham.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham was known as the first freedom rider. She was born in New York in 1827. Her father, Thomas Jennings, was an inventor and was the first Black person to hold a patent. He was also a founder of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church. Her mother was a speechwriter and member of a well-known literary society in New York. The family was well-to-do members of Black society in New York City.
After graduating from school, Graham became a teacher, teaching at the city’s private African Free School. The school, which was founded by abolitionists, was for children of enslaved people and free Black people. Graduates often became influential members of New York’s Black community, including Alexander Crummell and Henry Highland Garnet. Later, Graham opened a kindergarten for the Black children of her own community in her own children.
Graham was also a church organist. A chance moment of racism on her way to church changed the experiences of Black people in New York City moving forward.
Graham attempted to enter a streetcar to get to church. The conductor told her that she couldn’t enter, but could enter the streetcar for colored people. However, that car was filled. The conductor reluctantly allowed Graham on the streetcar, but eventually removed her physically, with the help of another, after Graham refused to back down during a conversation. A police officer who caught Graham’s removal, of course, offered no recourse.
Graham alerted her father, who went into action. The family was well-to-do, so Thomas Jennings hired a 24-year-old lawyer, named Chester Arthur—the same Chester Arthur who would become the 21st President of the United States. He filed suit against the 3rd Avenue Railroad Corporation with the New York State Supreme Court.
Arthur’s compelling case secured a confession from the conductor. Graham won and was awarded $225. The Railroad Corp. didn’t appeal the decision and agreed to accept all passengers regardless of race. They understood that racism and discrimination didn’t make good business sense. While all streetcars were not desegregated, Elizabeth’s stance set an important precedent.
Graham is a testament of what standing up for your rights looks like. Thankfully, her family had the resources to fight discrimination in the courts and secured a victory for the Black citizens of New York; this was the goal of the family. As educators, it is often on us to stand up for the rights of others. Our students and families may or may not have the access and resources to defend themselves against power, but we may and should partner with them to see justice through.
We have a responsibility to advocate for those who are overlooked and underestimated. We are not to speak for them. We are vessels to be spoken through while cheering the community on to speak for itself.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham; a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
For more information on Elizabeth Jennings Graham, visit the following site.