Every book has a “back story,” or the-story-behind-the-story of how the book came about.
My new book, Streetcar to Justice, has an especially good one. I learned of the topic thanks to an old, abandoned Victorian house.
From 1987 to 1996 my husband and I lived in Ossining, New York, a village on the Hudson River about an hour north of Manhattan. There was a house in our neighborhood that was covered with vines and partially boarded up. The house was perched high on a hill and must have had beautiful views of the Hudson River.
I suppose some people would walk right past a decrepit old house and dismiss it as an eyesore, if they paid much attention at all. I’m a nosy journalist, however, which means I pretty much notice everything. Not only that, but I’m fascinated by history.
Imagine my delight when I learned that the house was the summer home of a New York lawyer named Chester A. Arthur. If his name sounds familiar it’s because he was the twenty-first president of the United States.
I didn’t know much about Chester A. Arthur. I hadn’t even known he was a lawyer. Because I can never leave a good story alone, however, I did some additional research. That’s when I learned that he’d had a special interest in equal rights for blacks. Among his cases was one called Elizabeth Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad Company which went to court in 1855.
Digging deeper, I learned that Elizabeth Jennings was a black schoolteacher who had been thrown off a Manhattan streetcar because of the color of her skin. She sued, with Chester A. Arthur – just 24 years old – as her attorney, and she won. Her victory was the first major breakthrough in ending discriminatory practices in public transportation in New York City. It’s a riveting story but, sadly, it’s been mostly forgotten by time.
I found myself obsessed. Researching Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the 1850s in New York became my hobby of sorts for years. It evolved into a book project –my tenth – a year ago when I wrote a proposal and my literary agent sold it to Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is my first book for middle-grade (and up) readers, the perfect audience, I believe, for the topic.
And so, more than 160 years late, Elizabeth Jennings will finally get her due in the form of a book that includes archival photos, sidebars, timelines, and copies of stories from long-defunct newspapers. And to think that it started when a nosy reporter couldn’t resist finding out about an abandoned old house.
Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York will be published January 2. Be among the first to receive it by pre-ordering from your local bookstore or an online store such as Amazon.com
(Photo courtesy Ossining, N.Y. Historical Society)