Rosa Parks’ Historical Rhyme

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2017 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

There is a witty quote about history repeating itself, which conveys the notion that history repeats itself in a poetic way. The quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, although there is no evidence that Mark Twain ever said or wrote it. It is easy to believe that this is a Mark Twain quote, because its pithiness sounds like Mark Twain. This quote exists in a few different forms with slightly different wording, but all of the versions of this quote convey the same notion. One version of the quote states, “History does not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.”

This notion was expressed in a more sublime if less succinct way in the October 1845 issue of a religious periodical named The Christian Remembrancer. (As an aside, when the October 1845 issue of The Christian Remembrancer was published, Mark Twain was one month shy of his tenth birthday, so unless he was spouting witticisms as a young boy, then the notion about history rhyming was in print long before Mark Twain began to dispense creatively crafted aphorisms, which means that he almost certainly did not originate this notion.) The rendering of this notion that appeared in The Christian Remembrancer reads, “History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off in a mystic rhyme; ages are prototypes of other ages, and the winding course of time brings us round to the same spot again.” The statement about history rhyming rather than repeating is a clever way of expressing the fact that many events in history bear strong resemblance to earlier events.

Whoever rightfully deserves credit for originating this notion, it applies in a fascinating way to a person who is familiar to virtually everyone, namely Rosa Parks. Almost everyone knows about Rosa Parks and is familiar with what she did to earn her place in history, how, on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white person and move further into the back of the bus where blacks were required to sit. More than 100 years before Rosa Parks took a stand by not relinquishing her seat, a person who is Rosa Parks’ historical rhyme took a similar stand. What’s more, this incident, which happened on July 16, 1854, occurred almost 900 miles northeast of Montgomery, Alabama in a place that was never part of the Confederacy.

Elizabeth Jennings

The person whose actions foreshadowed those of Rosa Parks is Elizabeth Jennings. She was born into a family of free blacks in New York City. Elizabeth’s exact birthdate is unknown, and there is even conflicting information about the year of her birth. Based on available information she was born between 1826 and 1830. Her father was Thomas Jennings, who was a prominent member of the black community in New York City. He was a tailor who received a patent for a dry cleaning process and is reputedly the first African American to receive a U.S. patent. Elizabeth’s mother was also named Elizabeth, and the elder Elizabeth was a vocal advocate for the rights of blacks, particularly black women. She is best known for an 1837 speech that she delivered, which was titled “On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds.” In this speech, she counseled her listeners that failure to nurture the intellect will cause blacks to remain in a lower social status than whites. In light of the parents who raised her, the younger Elizabeth received a thorough education and grew up in an environment of notable accomplishments and of strenuous advocacy for civil rights.

Like her parents, Elizabeth was very active in her church. When Elizabeth was in her mid-20s she was the organist at her church, and on Sunday, July 16, 1854 she was running late for church services. Elizabeth and a friend named Sarah Adams were at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets when they hailed a streetcar. Streetcars in New York City at that time were horse-drawn vehicles that ran on rails, and only a few streetcars were designated for “colored persons.” Because Elizabeth was running late, she did not wait for a streetcar that displayed a sign indicating that she was allowed to ride in the car. She simply boarded the first car that arrived, and as it happened that streetcar was for whites only. After Elizabeth and her friend boarded the car, the conductor ordered the two women off. Elizabeth refused to leave the car, and the conductor then attempted to physically remove her. According to Elizabeth’s account of the incident, she clung to a window frame, and after the conductor pried her hand off the frame, she grabbed the conductor’s coat and held it tightly. The conductor told the driver to drive quickly, pick up no more passengers, and continue driving until they saw a police officer. When an officer was spotted, he joined the fray, and with his assistance Elizabeth was removed from the streetcar. Elizabeth later claimed that the officer “pushed me down, and tauntingly told me to get redress if I could.”

Chester Arthur as a young lawyer

Elizabeth and her parents were not the type to quietly tolerate the kind of treatment that Elizabeth received that day, and with or without the added incentive provided by the police officer’s remark, they did not hesitate to seek redress. A letter that Elizabeth wrote describing the incident was read at her church, and once news of the incident began to spread, there was outrage within the black community. Elizabeth’s letter was published by Frederick Douglass in his newspaper and by Horace Greeley in the New-York Tribune. With her parents’ urging and support, Elizabeth sued the streetcar company. Elizabeth’s father engaged the services of a white law firm, and Elizabeth was represented in court by the firm’s junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who later in his life held a position of greater authority than junior partner in a law firm. Elizabeth won her case against the streetcar company, and the court awarded her $250. Presiding Judge William Rockwell stated that the streetcar company was “liable for the acts of their agents, whether committed carelessly and negligently, or willfully and maliciously.” The judge also declared, in a less than complimentary statement, “Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.” It is unclear if the judge felt that this statement also applied to whites, or if inebriated, misbehaving, diseased whites were allowed to ride on streetcars. Nevertheless, the streetcar company ended its policy of segregated cars on the day following the court’s ruling, and this ruling led to all streetcar companies in New York City putting an end to segregated cars within several years.

Elizabeth Jennings Place in New York City

Not much is known about Elizabeth Jennings’ life after the incident on the streetcar. She married Charles Graham, and they had a son who was named Thomas, the same name as Elizabeth’s father. Their son died at the age of one in 1863 and was laid to rest in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn during the time that New York City was recovering from the draft riots. Elizabeth’s husband, Charles, died five years later. Elizabeth had been a teacher most of her adult life, and she eventually established a kindergarten for black children in her home. Elizabeth Jennings Graham died on June 5, 1901 and is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery with her husband and son. One of Elizabeth’s legacies is that an area along Park Row in New York City is now named Elizabeth Jennings Place. The movement which led to this was initiated in 2007 by grade school students in New York City.

Rosa Parks

In an article which appeared in 1976 in American Quarterly, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” This statement certainly applies to Elizabeth Jennings and Rosa Parks, both of whom made history by disobeying rules. When Elizabeth Jennings refused to leave a streetcar in New York City, she had no way of knowing that 101 years later a black woman would engage in a similar defiant act on a bus almost 900 miles away in Montgomery, Alabama. Elizabeth Jennings was simply running late and needed to board a streetcar as soon as possible, but she ended up making an important if little-known contribution to civil rights. Rosa Parks’ act of defiance became much more widely known, and it would not be surprising if Rosa Parks did not know about Elizabeth Jennings, although it is irrelevant whether Rosa Parks knew about Elizabeth and was motivated by Elizabeth’s actions. What is important is that both women chose to take a stand against unjust policies and in so doing contributed to the eradication of those policies. In a larger sense, by taking a stand against discrimination on a streetcar in New York City and on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, these two women helped to make indisputably clear that any policy of racial or ethnic discrimination is irreconcilable with our country’s defining principle that “all men are created equal.” Elizabeth Jennings and Rosa Parks, two misbehaving women who were simply trying to use public transportation to go where they needed to go, rode their acts of defiance into history. They were separated in time by a century, but they are forever linked in an inspiring historical rhyme that serves as a powerful civil rights paradigm and resonates through all ages.