Lizzie Demands a Seat Elizabeth Jennings Fights For Streetcar Rights

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In 1854, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jennings, an African American schoolteacher, fought back when she was unjustly denied entry to a New York City streetcar, sparking the beginnings of the long struggle to gain equal rights on public transportation.

One hundred years before Rosa Parks took her stand, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jennings tried to board a streetcar in New York City on her way to church. Though there were plenty of empty seats, she was denied entry, assaulted, and threatened all because of her race--even though New York was a free state at that time.

Lizzie decided to fight back. She told her story, took her case to court--where future president Chester Arthur represented her--and won! Her victory was the first recorded in the fight for equal rights on public transportation, and Lizzie's case set a precedent.

Author Beth Anderson and acclaimed illustrator E. B. Lewis bring this inspiring, little-known story to life in this captivating book.---from the publisher

32 pages                                    978-1629799391                               Ages 7-10

Keywords:  African American, women, civil rights, standing up for yourself, role of the individual, power of the individual, 19th century, American history, diverse books, diversity, finding your voice, social activist, social issues, New York, racism, prejudice, discrimination, 7 year old, 8 year old, 9 year old, 10 year old, Social Studies Curriculum, biography, informational picture book, racial injustice


“A monument for civil rights icon Elizabeth Jennings Graham will be dedicated in Grand Central Terminal as part of a city initiative to honor the influential women of New York City, First Lady Chirlane McCray announced Wednesday.

The Grand Central monument will be one of four constructed in the city through the ‘She Built NYC’ initiative launched in 2018…

‘We cannot tell the story of New York City without recognizing the invaluable contributions of the women who helped build and shape it,’ McCray said in a statement. ‘Public monuments should tell the full history and inspire us to realize our potential -- not question our worth.’”

-- Midtown-Hell’s Kitchen Patch (3/6/19)

Who is this Elizabeth Jennings who is getting a monument built in her honor?

One Sunday in 1854, New Yorker Lizzie Jennings was on the verge of being late to play the organ at church. Andt they wouldn’t let her onto the horse-drawn streetcar. Lizzie was black.

“Usually Lizzie’s fine clothes and proper manners earned her a seat on a car reserved for whites. Usually it was up to the passengers to object.

But not today. This conductor expected her to ride on a car for ‘her people’ --a car with the sign ‘Colored People Allowed in This Car.’

Lizzie swallowed hard. ‘I don’t have any people.’

‘The car’s full.’ The conductor shooed her away.

‘Get off.’

She eyed empty seats. Despite being born a ‘free black’ in a ‘free state,’ she’d never been treated as equal. She’d been rejected, restricted, and refused by schools, restaurants, and theaters. Suddenly, late-for-church wasn’t as important as late-for-equity. Lizzie stood firm.”

After quite a ruckus, a policeman eventually threw Elizabeth Jennings off the horse-drawn streetcar.

But they were messing with the wrong young woman. The New York City native was the daughter of prosperous black abolitionists, and they were up for a fight. When Lizzie sued the streetcar company for her right to ride, she was represented by Chester Arthur, who later became our 21st President.

After presentation of evidence, the judge’s instructions to the jury included:

“The Third Avenue Railroad Company was responsible for the actions of the driver and the conductor.

People of color had the same right to ride as others.

Streetcars were required to carry all respectable, well-behaved people.”

The law clearly was on Lizzie’s side. And justice was served when the jury found in her favor. This led to the end of the “Colored People Allowed in This Car” signs on that streetcar line.

It took a lot of time and a lot more black Americans standing up for their rights, but segregation on streetcar lines across the country was slowly eradicated. It didn’t happen overnight; the struggle continued on long after they replaced the streetcar horses with motors. It was still going on when Martin Luther King, Jr. made his name during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

But it began with Lizzie Jenkins, an antebellum freedom rider who is just now being recognized with a monument in her city of New York.

LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! is an outstanding picture book for older readers.

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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