Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York Book Poster Image
Inspiring story of resisting segregation in 1850s New York.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational value

Filled with archival photos and drawings that bring 1850s New York City to life. Also maps, copies of newspaper articles about Elizabeth Jennings' court case, and informational sidebars on everything from the First New Yorkers (the Lenni-Lenape people), Jim Crow laws, and Frederick Douglass to the Civil War Draft Riots and the Fugitive Slave Act. 

Positive messages

Never be afraid to stand up and demand justice.

Positive role models & representations

Elizabeth Jennings is remembered not only for her courageous stand against segregated public transportation in New York City. In 1854, she was one of only 13 black schoolteachers in the city, and in 1895, she co-founded its first free kindergarten for black children.

Violence

Elizabeth is dragged from the streetcar and injured when she's thrown to the ground.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, drugs & smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Amy Hill Hearth's Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York tells the little-known story of the young black schoolteacher who was the Rosa Parks of 1850s New York City. Late for a choir rehearsal, Elizabeth Jennings decided not to wait for a "colored" streetcar and boarded the first one that came along. When the conductor objected and she refused to leave, Elizabeth was pushed off the car, leaving her bruised and dazed on the street. Not one to back down when faced with injustice, Elizabeth took the unprecedented step of suing for damages. She was represented by a future president of the United States, and her victory in the court case would become the first step in desegregating the city's public transportation. While some young readers may be overwhelmed by the volume of information provided by the numerous archival photos, drawings, and informational sidebars, others will be excited to find something that sparks their interest on almost every page.

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What's the story?

STREETCAR TO JUSTICE tells the story of Elizabeth Jennings, a young black schoolteacher in 1850s New York City. At that time, New York had segregated schools, theaters, and public transportation. Black New Yorkers could only ride on "white" streetcars if the passengers didn't object or they rode hanging on the outside of the car. One evening in 1854, late for choir practice at her church, Elizabeth decided that instead of waiting for a "colored" streetcar, she would take the first one that arrived. She was pushed off the car by a conductor and, after she tried to board a second time, by a policeman. Elizabeth and her family were part of a small, well-educated black community in New York, and they and their friends (including Frederick Douglass) decided to "pursue justice" and sue the streetcar company, conductor, and driver of the horses for damages. She was represented in court by a 24-year-old newly minted lawyer, Chester A. Arthur, who would go on to become the 21st president of the United States. Jennings won her case and was awarded $225 in damages. Her victory led to the integration of New York's streetcars, railroads, steamboats, and ferries. 

Is it any good?

This engaging and inspirational true story uses a wealth of archival photos and drawings to visually bring to life an almost forgotten heroine in civil rights history. While Elizabeth Jennings' story is sure to capture the interest of readers, the sheer amount and variety of supplementary information in Streetcar to Justice could be daunting to young readers who aren't history buffs. The sidebars and short chapters cover a huge amount of historical territory and run the gamut from the native Lenni-Lenape people to Civil War Draft Riots, Horace Greeley, Rosa Parks, and Chester A. Arthur's "creepy" summer home.

There's a bibliography, but it's surprising that many of the books listed are for adult readers or are described as "academic" or "scholarly" works. A list on the Suggested Reading page offers four books appropriate for young readers.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what Streetcar to Justice taught them about segregation in 1850s New York. Were you surprised at how much prejudice there was against black families living in a big northern city?

  • If you were a white passenger on that streetcar, would you have spoken up and asked your fellow passengers to let Elizabeth be seated? What would you have said?

  • How do you think the story would have changed if Elizabeth hadn't come from a family with money and powerful friends within New York's black community?

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