Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

28 ON THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE MIND

Elizabeth Jennings

Founded in 1834, the Ladies' Literary Society of New York was an organization of the city's elite black women that was devoted to reading, discussion, self-instruction, and political activism. In May 1837, the society sent a delegation to the First Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

Elizabeth Jennings, a schoolteacher and member of the society, is best remembered today for her celebrated suit against New York's Third Avenue Railroad Company. In 1854, Jennings refused a conductor's order to move to a separate car.

I answered again and told him I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born, that I had never been insulted before while going to church, and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church. He then said I should come out and he would put me out. I told him not to lay his hands on me; he took hold of me and I took hold of the window sash and held on; he pulled me until he broke my grasp and I took hold of his coat and held on to that, he also broke my grasp from that (but previously he had dragged my companion out, she all the while screaming for him to let go). He then ordered the driver to fasten his horses, which he did, and come and help him put me out of the car; they then both seized hold of me by the arms and pulled and dragged me flat down on the bottom of the platform, so that my feet hung one way and my head the other, nearly on the ground. I screamed murder with all my voice, and my companion screamed out "you'll kill her; don't kill her." The driver then let go of me and went to his horses; I went again in the car, and the conductor said you shall sweat for this; then told the driver to drive as fast as he could and not to take another passenger in the car; to drive until he saw an officer or a Station House.

Taunted by the police and the officer to "get redress if she could," Jennings did just that, winning $225 in damages, legal protection for black passengers, and national attention.

But Jennings's eloquent activism had begun long before. A group of male abolitionists attended the third anniversary meeting of the Ladies' Literary Society in August 1837 and reported its program and their impressions of it to the editors of the Colored American. The "admirable dis

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