Black Resistance to Segregation in the Nineteenth Century

African Americans waiting at streetcar terminal in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939 (Photo: Russell Lee, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, Library of Congress).

In 1852, the Third Avenue Railroad Company was founded. It ran between City Hall and 62nd Street in Manhattan. Its horse-drawn streetcars quickly became the primary mode of transportation in the city. A small number of the cars carried placards indicating that they accepted African American passengers. Additional cars occasionally allowed Black passengers at the discretion of the operator, and with the approval of the white passengers.

As historian Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s work emphasizes, freedom of movement was something that white Americans could take for granted. Mobility, which included equal access to transportation, was therefore a major area of focus for early Black activists. Some of the activism in nineteenth-century Black organizations revolved around the creation of networks to guard against the kidnapping of free African Americans into slavery. Black kidnapping victims’ lack of legal rights made it very difficult for them to prove their right to freedom. For example, it took Solomon Northup’s supporters twelve years to locate him and free him following his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement. This legitimate fear was one source of limitation on mobility. Another involved access to transportation or legal documentation that proved African Americans’ right to move around the country—or even across the globe—without restriction. As a result, Black civil rights organizations often initiated legal challenges to segregationist laws and company policies on street cars, trains, and ships. Successful legal challenges were then used as models in other cases throughout the country.

Even before the Civil War, Black resistance organizations looked for test cases to challenge both slavery and laws that targeted the liberties of free Blacks. In 1788, Prince Hall, the founder of Black Freemasonry, petitioned the Senate and the House of Representatives over the kidnapping of free Black Bostonians for sale into the slave trade. Hall’s petition was reprinted in the Philadelphia newspaper The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser. The reprinting was significant because Philadelphia had a sizeable free Black community that was at similar risk to Boston’s for having its citizens snatched by slave traders.1 The Boston and Philadelphia Black Masonic Lodges had received their warrants around the same time. The publication and republication of petitions and other tools of resistance were part of early Black anti-slavery knowledge production.

These networks of shared information continued into the nineteenth century. In 1851, an abolitionist group met at Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester, New York. Their meeting centered on discussing strategies for resisting the recently enacted 1850 Fugitive Slave Law that targeted runaway slaves and further endangered free Blacks. They examined the “aggressive vigilance” of Syracuse abolitionists who had seized William “Jerry” McHenry from federal authorities.2 Safety was tied to community vigilance. An 1862 petition to the Senate and Assembly of the State of California challenged state statutes that barred “persons of one-half or more” African American blood from serving as a witness in any proceeding involving a white person and excluded anyone with at least one Black great-grandparent from testifying against a white person in criminal proceedings. The statues had clear ramifications in fugitive slave cases.

Many of the legal challenges to restrictions on Black liberties took place in major cities where there were critical masses of free African Americans of social power and financial means. In the first half of the nineteenth century, New York City had a vibrant, elite Black community, with the population peaking at about 16,300 African Americans in the 1840s. In the 1850s, Irish immigrants began to displace African Americans in Manhattan’s historically Black Five Points District, a working class neighborhood. The draft riots of the 1860s contributed to further declines in the Black population as Black families moved either to outer boroughs or left the city entirely to avoid anti-Black violence.

Street scene in Philadelphia, 1882 (Photo: America Revisited, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

On Sunday, June 16, 1854, two young Black New Yorkers named Elizabeth Jennings and Sarah Adams attempted to board one of the Third Avenue Railroad Company cars to head to church. Upon noticing their race, the conductor instructed both women to get off the car and wait for a second car for African Americans that was still a few blocks away. The women refused, in part because they did not want to be late for church, but also because the segregated streetcars were already targets of Black resistance. Other Black New Yorkers had been arrested for refusing to disembark from segregated cars. The conductor called in a police officer. Jennings and Adams were roughly removed from the car by police officers and arrested. Jennings later testified that she was thrown to the sidewalk, “her bonnet smashed, and her dress soiled.”

Part of the strategy of repudiating anti-Black laws entailed finding good legal test cases for challenging segregation. Jennings made a good plaintiff for a number of reasons. First, her father Thomas was a well-respected businessman who had been active in civil rights causes for more than two decades by the time his twenty-seven year old daughter was arrested. Secondly, there was no ambiguity as to her legal status. Her mother Elizabeth was born enslaved but was purchased and freed by Thomas. The older Elizabeth was subject to New York State’s 1799 gradual emancipation law and considered an “indentured servant” until 1827. Since the younger Elizabeth Jennings was born in 1827, at which time her mother was legally free, Elizabeth was also free. Lawyers for Third Avenue Railroad Company could not use questions about her legal status to muddy her standing to sue.

Jennings’s rough and forced removal from the streetcar did, in fact, attract considerable support from the African American community in New York and across the country. Her violent arrest was reported in The New-York Tribune, a newspaper published by Horace Greeley, as well as in Frederick Douglass’ Paper.3 Free Black New Yorkers and activists James W. C. Pennington and Henry Highland Garnet also lent their support. Jennings retained the firm of Culiver, Parker, and Arthur, with her attorney being future president Chester A. Arthur. Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad Company went to court in Brooklyn, with Thomas Jennings filing suit against the company, its driver, and its conductor on his daughter’s behalf. Arthur successfully argued that revised state statutes that barred segregation were applicable to common companies. The judge informed the jury that “under the law, colored persons, if sober, well-behaved, and free from disease, had the right to ride the streetcars,” and “could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”4 The all-white, all-white male jury found in favor of Jennings. She recouped $225.00 in damages, plus $22.50 in court fees. The Third Avenue Railroad Company also agreed to desegregate.

The Jennings case became a model of legal strategy for combating segregation. Thomas Jennings, J.W. Pennington and the other Black leaders formed the Legal Rights Association to continue challenges to segregation on other New York streetcars. A number of these cases involved women plaintiffs who tended to win public support. The Legal Rights Association’s last case prior to full desegregation of all New York streetcars also involved a woman named Ellen Anderson, the widow of a United States Colored Troops soldier who was killed in action during the Civil War.

Jennings and the other women plaintiffs inspired legal strategy nationally. In 1854, Jennings’s testimony was reported by James R. Starkey at a meeting of the Young Men’s Association in San Francisco, California.5 Legal challenges to limitations on Black mobility would go on to serve as a model for the NAACP in the twentieth century, providing further continuity of anti-racist tactics first established by those like petitioner Prince Hall in eighteenth-century Boston.

  1.  Prince Hall, “To the Honorable the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in General Court Assembled, on the 27th February, 1788. The Petition of a Great Number of Blacks, Freeman of Said Commonwealth,” American Museum, or, Repository of Ancient and Modern Fugitive Pieces (May 1788): 410-411.
  2.  Document 19: Proceedings of a Meeting of Rochester Blacks, Convened at the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rochester, New York, 13 October 1851 C. Peter Ripley, ed, The Black Abolitionist Papers: Vol. IV, The United States, 1847-1858 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991): 98-101.
  3.  “Legal Rights Vindicated,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper (March 2, 1855), 2:3; “A Wholesome Verdict,” New York Tribune (February 23, 1855): 7:4.
  4.  Document 46: “Testimony of Elizabeth Jennings, Presented by Peter S. Ewell at the First Colored Congregational Church New York, New York, 17 July 1854; and Resolutions by James R. Starkey, Delivered at a Meeting of the Young Men’s Association San Francisco, California, 14 August 1854,” C. Peter Ripley, ed, The Black Abolitionist Papers: Vol. IV, The United States, 1847-1858 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 230-233.
  5.  James R. Starkey, Delivered at a Meeting of the Young Men’s Association San Francisco, California, 14 August 1854,” C. Peter Ripley, ed, The Black Abolitionist Papers: Vol. IV, The United States, 1847-1858 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 230-233.
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Jessica Parr

Jessica Parr teaches at Simmons College in Boston and is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Women Studies at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. She's primarily interested in African American print culture, and religious and political thought. Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @ProvAtlantic.

Comments on “Black Resistance to Segregation in the Nineteenth Century

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    I really enjoyed this extremely well researched and informative piece! Thank you.

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    Thank you for this important piece of history which is a testament to the legacy of strategic resistance of Black people in America.

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