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Telling the Story of Elizabeth Jennings, NY's 19th-Century Freedom Rider

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Wednesday, February 23, 2022   

One hundred years before Rosa Parks ignited a 13-month bus boycott, Elizabeth Jennings led the way for New York. A presentation this evening at a Hudson Valley museum aims to share Jennings' legacy in the Empire State.

In July 1854, Jennings - a Black school teacher - refused to leave a streetcar designated for white passengers only in New York City and was assaulted by the conductor.

Jerry Mikorenda - author of "America's First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights" - shares the story virtually tonight at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He said Jennings' impact has been overlooked in history.

"If you were African American in the 1850s, it was a pretty dark period," said Mikorenda. "I mean, it was a time where you had to be asking yourself, 'Am I going to be kicked out of this country?' You had the Dred Scott decision, you had the coming Civil War - and it was just a really hard time. And this was a victory. It gave people hope."

Jennings took her case to court, represented by Chester A. Arthur, who would go on to be the 21st U.S. president.

A judge ruled in her favor, which led to the desegregation of all public transit in the state by 1861.

Event tickets are seven-dollars for the public and free for Hudson River Maritime Museum members. A recording will be available on the museum's YouTube channel.

Sarah Wassberg Johnson - director of exhibits and outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum - said Jennings' story may not have direct ties to the Hudson River, but it highlights New York's long journey toward racial justice.

"It brings in questions of transportation and how people got around, and how ordinary people were living," said Johnson. "And so, we thought that Elizabeth Jennings is just really compelling - and it's a part of our New York City and New York State history that is not told very often."

The presentation is part of the museum's "Follow the River Lecture Series," which hosts writers and maritime experts for discussions that intersect with Hudson River history.



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