Category Archives: Civil rights history

Special New Podcast on Elizabeth Jennings this Fall

I spent the morning of July 16 visiting the precise locations where the dramatic Elizabeth Jennings story unfolded in Lower Manhattan. Why July 16? Because that is the anniversary of the date in 1854 when she was assaulted and removed from a segregated streetcar. While walking from place to place, and trying not to get run over, I was being interviewed by a Famous Person and his recording team for his new podcast. Famous Person was a swell guy and a good sport. In fact, he carried my purse so that I could juggle my map and a bottle of water. (We were all desperately drinking water. It was 90-plus degrees which meant that on the pavement it must have been closer to 100.) Despite the challenges, I believe the podcast will turn out well! I’m very grateful for the opportunity. Stay tuned! I’ll let you know when I can share more about it. I’m so thrilled that my book, Streetcar to Justice, continues to get great media attention. Elizabeth Jennings, the Rosa Parks of New York, was long overdue for a biography

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Filed under Civil rights history, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books, People, Streetcar to Justice, The Writing Life

Middle-Grade Readers Captivated by the ‘Yuck’ Factor

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!

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Filed under Civil rights history, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books, Streetcar to Justice

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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New Book on Elizabeth Jennings, “Streetcar to Justice,” Tells Her Full Story for the First Time

My tenth book, published last month, is a biography of an all-but-forgotten American woman named Elizabeth Jennings who was the Rosa Parks of Old New York.

Why a book on Miss Jennings? Because, frankly, she needed one. She was 164 years overdue.

I had stumbled across her story and started researching it as a hobby of sorts many years ago. This is the kind of mystery that journalists love. She was a footnote to history or, at best, a few sentences or a chapter in an academic book. She was almost completely unknown to the general public. I was intrigued.

In more recent years her name and story started floating around the Internet, told here and there, in pieces, with many errors, many of them casually repeated. I found this enormously frustrating. She deserved better.

But I always had something else – another book project or two – on my plate. Then one day a close writer-friend, the author Audrey Glassman Vernick, gave me the nudge I needed. Enough already with the research, she said, adding that it was time to pull together all of the research, write a book, and share what I had learned. She convinced me, also, that middle-grade readers must be able to read it. That’s the age when many American children are introduced to Rosa Parks and other civil rights icons. A book on Elizabeth Jennings would build on that knowledge and expand their understanding of American history.

The book I ended up writing is indeed geared to middle-grade readers but, as many critics have noted, it’s suitable for middle-grade to adult readers. Some critics say that Streetcar to Justice has more primary resources and explanatory research than any children’s book they’ve ever seen. Well, I couldn’t help myself. I wanted middle-grade and young adult readers to see how a book like this is created. I hoped teachers could use sidebars, timelines, and images. And, I realized the book would be read by adults who had never heard the story and were, quite simply, interested.

To be properly remembered, Elizabeth Jennings needed a book. With the publication of Streetcar to Justice, she has one.

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Filed under Civil rights history, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books, People, Streetcar to Justice, The Writing Life

“Streetcar to Justice” Was Inspired by Friendship with the Delany Sisters

When you’ve had friends like the late Sadie and Bessie Delany, with whom I created the 1993 oral history Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, you find that you see life in a different way. The daughters of a man born into slavery and a mother who was mixed race and born free, the sisters were 100 and 102 years old and absolutely still full of life when I met them. They had never married, and had lived together their entire lives.

Their memories were astonishing. They were funny, candid, and insightful. They were independent, dignified, and forthright. And, apparently they had not changed one bit in more than a century.

At the time we met I was already an established journalist but from their point of view I was, at age 33, a mere child in need of their protection and advice. Their expectations for my future were high. Having Our Say, they made it clear, would be my first book. I was to go on and write more books, and each one would have to be worthy of my time and God-given talent.

In fact, the Delany Sisters not only had specific ideas for my future, they said they’d be watching and cheering me on from the Spirit World after they were gone. (Bessie went one step further: She said she was going to be my guardian angel. “Anyone who messes with you is going to be sorry,” she’d say.) To the Delany Sisters, love and expectations and high hopes were all intertwined.

Having Our Say started as a feature story I wrote about the then-unknown pair of sisters for The New York Times. The next thing I knew, I was contacted by a book publisher. Did I want to expand my story into a full-length book?

The Delany Sisters, born in 1889 and 1891, were from a generation of black women whose contributions and perspectives were almost completely ignored. It didn’t take long for us to agree that the book should be done for the sake of history. As Sadie noted, “Maybe it will help somebody. Mama used to say, if it helps one person, it’s worth doing.”

The sisters’ upbringing was very unusual: Along with their eight brothers and sisters, they were raised on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, N.C. where their father was vice-principal and their mother, a teacher and administrator. Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois were among the friends of the Delany family. As young adults, the sisters went on to become ground-breaking career women, both having earned advanced degrees at Columbia University in New York City. Living in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, the sisters experienced what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. From the Delany sisters I learned black history in depth and firsthand.

Having Our Say, to my surprise, was a runaway bestseller. Later, it was adapted to the Broadway stage and for an award-winning film. Twenty-five years after its publication, the book is still used in American classrooms.

The sisters have been gone for years now. Bessie, the “little” sister, died at age 104 in 1995. Sadie died in 1999, a few months short of her 110th birthday.

I think about them every day, and whenever I have a problem I ask myself, What would the sisters say? And the answer pops right into my head. I’m following in their footsteps as I make my way through life. One thing I am sure of: My new book, Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York is exactly the type of book project they wanted me to do. I have felt their presence every step of the way.

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Filed under Civil rights history, Delany Sisters, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Nonfiction books, People, Remembrances, Streetcar to Justice, The Writing Life

How an Old, Abandoned House Led Me to My New Book Topic

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
Chester A. Arthur summer residence, Havell St., Ossining, N.Y. (Photo courtesy Ossining, N.Y. Historical Society)

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Filed under Civil rights history, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books