If you think Manhattan is dirty now, consider what it was like in 1854. That was the year Elizabeth Jennings, the Rosa Parks of New York, had her fateful encounter on a segregated streetcar, as I wrote in my book Streetcar to Justice, the first biography of the all-but-forgotten civil rights hero.
Dirt roads that reverted to marshland every time it rained, no sanitary sewer system, tons of horse manure (and even the occasional dead horse), packs of stray dogs and wild hogs (hogs!) scavenging for food: This was Manhattan.
This is great material for a book geared to middle-grade readers. When I’ve read the book aloud to students, there is always a chorus of “ewwws!” and other reactions: “Yuck,” “gross,” and so on. (Well, at least I’ve captured their attention!)
When I researched the details of life in Manhattan during Elizabeth Jennings’s era I didn’t want to rely on descriptions by other writers. Instead, I located original documents. These included statistics about various horrible diseases (for example, cholera) compiled at the time and kept by the city.
This type of research makes a book come alive. That she was forcibly removed from a streetcar meant for whites, and literally ended up on her back in the filthy street, makes the indignity of what Elizabeth Jennings suffered that much worse.
At the same time, her fight for justice in the courts reveals a woman of courage and resilience – a true hero of her time who deserves her place in history. It is delightful to know that readers are finally learning her inspiring story, even if they are also enjoying the “yuck” factor!