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
Category Archives: Streetcar to Justice
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!
Whenever I hear of someone acting with prejudice toward another person, and after I get over my shock and disgust, the lyrics of an old song come to mind. It’s not a song that many people know today because it dates to a play (and then a movie) called “South Pacific” that was a huge hit with the Greatest Generation. A copy of the record album was among my father’s possessions.
The song is, “You Have to be Carefully Taught.”
The point of the song is that prejudice isn’t something you’re born with. It’s learned behavior from early childhood.
“You have got to be taught before it’s too late…
To hate all the people your relatives hate.”
Sung by the character Lieutenant Joe Cable, the lyrics stunned audiences in 1949 when the play hit Broadway. Some theatergoers and critics felt the topic wasn’t “appropriate” for musical theater but the producers, Rodgers & Hammerstein, insisted on including it.
Some of us are lucky and were not raised to have anger in our hearts, or to habitually blame someone else for our problems. Some of us have parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles, who set us on the right path.
But plenty of others grew up under different circumstances. They have been “carefully taught” to hate.
It must be extremely difficult to overcome an upbringing in which one is essentially brainwashed into having such hostile viewpoints. It can be done, however, and clearly it takes a combination of willingness and exposure to a broader world.
This is where reading can make a difference. Recent studies show that reading increases a child’s empathy toward others. A child can explore entire worlds through the pages of a book. When a white child reads a book about Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, for example, he or she may be acquiring more than a history lesson. It may very well be that child’s first opportunity to see the world in a different light.
Amy Hill Hearth is the author, most recently, of “Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York.”
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.
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.