Story of Elizabeth Jennings in “Streetcar to Justice” Is a Shock to Many

Slavery and Jim Crow in the Northern states?

Signs for “Colored” Riders in Manhattan?!

A slave market in New York City?!

That’s just a portion of the back-story I included in my new biography of Elizabeth Jennings, a black schoolteacher who refused to leave a segregated streetcar in Manhattan in 1854, setting into motion a historic court case and the first major step in ending segregation in public transportation in New York. She is sometimes called the Rosa Parks of Old New York.

To tell the Elizabeth Jennings story in a meaningful way, I realized I needed to include a significant amount of historical context. Americans are simply unaware, or at best vaguely aware, that there was slavery in Northern states as well as segregation. It’s especially shocking to people – even lifelong New Yorkers – that this included New York City.

And so my book, “Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York,” is about an extraordinary woman whose story had never been told as a book, not in 164 years since the main events of her life occurred. At the same time, the book breaks what is nearly a taboo subject, at least for books intended for a mainstream (non-academic) audience of readers from middle-grade to adult. That nearly taboo subject is: Slavery and segregation did not happen only in the South.

This is the reason my book has illustrations, photographs, a map, multiple sidebars (for example, “Slavery in the North”) and timelines (“The End of Slavery in Northern States”). It’s information that a lot of people apparently don’t know, but should. I wanted the book to be helpful to anyone who might pick it up but especially teachers, librarians, parents or anyone else trying to explain the full picture of this crucial but overlooked part of American history.

Without knowing the full story of the past, we can’t truly understand the world in which we are living. I’d like to believe that Elizabeth Jennings – who, after all, was a teacher – would agree.

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Filed under Civil rights history, Nonfiction books

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