By Alan R. Cohen
One hundred years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Elizabeth Jennings Graham (c. 1827–1901) challenged racial discrimination on a New York City streetcar. New York State had formally ended slavery on July 4, 1827, but during the 1850s segregation and racism were widespread in the city. Some streetcar companies allowed blacks to ride only on specially marked cars.
On July 16, 1854, Jennings (she was not yet married) was late getting to church, where she played the organ on Sundays. She decided to take the first streetcar that came along, rather than wait for the “Negro friendly” one. The conductor told her to get off the coach, and Jennings refused. A physical altercation followed, with the conductor attempting to remove Jennings, who stubbornly held on to the windows or the conductor’s lapels. Finally a policeman came to the conductor’s aid, and they threw Jennings off.
In her lawsuit against the Third Avenue Streetcar Company, Jennings was represented by a novice attorney, Chester Arthur; he would later become President of the United States. The judge was sympathetic to Jennings, stating that "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." Jennings asked for $500 in damages (her clothing was ruined, and she had bruises); she was awarded $225. The case did not end segregated streetcars in New York City—that would take almost twenty more years.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham is one of thirteen women featured in the exhibition Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism, at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition is on display through January 9, 2019. During the Victorian era (roughly 1837 to 1901), the expectations and social norms concerning women were as constraining as their corsets. Women and men had totally different roles. Men could be out in public at work, but women had to remain at home and, as the museum exhibition notes, embody the virtues of “domesticity, religious piety, sexual purity, and submissiveness.”
Whereas Jennings had the courage and tenacity to challenge segregation, Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868) defied gender norms, especially regarding purity and domesticity. Her story is also included in the Rebel Women exhibition. One of Menken’s favorite sayings was “Good women are rarely clever, and clever women are rarely good.” Menken was married at least four times, briefly to two men simultaneously, and had numerous lovers. She was a poet, an actress, a friend to writers such as Whitman, Dickens, and Dumas, and a lover of publicity. Menken was best known for her appearance in a spectacular show, Mazeppa. At one point in the show, Menken rode a horse while she was dressed in a flesh-colored costume that made her appear nude. This scandalous role increased her popularity. Menken knew she was dying when she was just 33 years old, and she wrote, “I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred?”
Adah Isaacs Menken
As the Victorian era drew to a close, activist women participated in the Kosher Meat Riots of 1902. Home to many Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century, New York City had numerous kosher butchers to provide them with meat and chicken. Kosher meat is necessarily more expensive than non-kosher meat because of the extra steps needed to produce it. In addition to specifically prescribed slaughtering techniques, the meat must be drained of blood and salted, a process that takes more time and labor and, therefore, adds to the cost.
The average cost of kosher meat in 1902 was 12 cents per pound, about 5 cents per pound more than non-kosher meat. A group of wholesale meat purveyors decided to raise the price to 18 cents. They saw it as a simple way to make a buck, because the Jewish immigrants, desiring to keep kosher, would have no choice but to pay the higher price. For many poor Jewish immigrants, the price increase meant they could no longer afford meat, at least not regularly. Initially, the 400 or so kosher retailers pushed back and boycotted the meat barons, but to no avail. Now it was time for the women to take over.
Fanny Levy and Sarah Edelson began a door-to-door campaign to organize a boycott. Their tactics grew in ferocity as they went from encouraging women not to buy kosher meat to actually accosting shoppers in the streets and visiting people at home to see if they had gone against the boycott. If the women found kosher meat, they would destroy it. The organizers made their case in synagogues—at a time when many congregations did not allow women in the same space as Jewish men. The organizers gained support for their boycott, even from rabbis.
On May 15, some 20,000 women broke into kosher butcher shops on the Lower East Side, carted the meat into the streets, and burned it. The police struggled to control the crowds. One woman, tussled by an officer, slapped him with a fresh piece of liver. By the end of the day, seventy women had been arrested. The Jewish press largely praised the courageous boycotters, but The New York Times saw them as a “dangerous class…especially the women [who] are very ignorant [and]…mostly speak a foreign language.”
The boycott spread to other sections of New York City and to several other cities with sizeable Jewish populations. In June the kosher meat wholesalers relented somewhat, lowering the price to 14 cents per pound. That was enough of a drop to take the steam out of the boycott. But the rebel women had learned a valuable lesson. They had the ability to organize, to take effective action, and to bring about change.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city's most surprising landscapes. Did you know there are woods, complete with a lovely creek with waterfalls, in the middle of Manhattan? Have you ever visited New York's own Secret Garden? Are you familiar with the role this area played in early American wars?
We enjoy the northern half of Central Park so much that we are offering tours there twice this month. Take a walk with Alan on Wednesday, August 1, at 10 AM or with Laurie on Saturday, August 25, at 1 PM. Please email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com) to register and to learn the meeting location.
400 Years of History in Less Than a Mile
Lower Broadway is like an illustrated history textbook, with the pages out of order. This stretch of Manhattan illustrates American history from colonial times to the present. Take a walk in the footsteps of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hear stories about heroes like them, as well as rogues like William "Boss" Tweed. Look at beautiful buildings, including the first department store.
Alan is offering this tour on Sunday, August 5, at 10 AM. Please email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to register and to learn the meeting location.
Mansions of Fifth Avenue
You can still find magnificent mansions built about a hundred years ago on the Upper East Side. These freestanding and rowhouse mansions are interspersed among luxury apartment buildings---mansions in the sky. Hear about these palatial homes and the people who lived in them---New York's own rich and famous.
Take a walk with Laurie to see Upper East Side mansions on Sunday, August 19, at 1 PM. Email her (email@example.com) to reserve a spot and to learn the meeting location.
Central Park: Highlights of the Southern Half
In the popular southern half of Central Park, you’ll recognize some of the most filmed and photographed sights in New York, including Strawberry Fields, the Sheep Meadow, and Bethesda Terrace. Central Park is an amazing retreat in all kinds of weather. If you haven't been to the park this summer, take advantage of this opportunity to visit and learn the history of one of the highlights of New York City.
Start the last holiday weekend of summer by exploring the southern half of Central Park with Laurie on Friday, August 31, at 1 PM. Please email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org) to register and to learn the meeting location.