One hundred years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger sparking the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts, a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement took place when a New York City woman made the same stand.
On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings went to the First Colored Congregational Church in NYC, where she was organist. As she was running late, she boarded a streetcar of the Third Avenue Railroad Company. The conductor ordered her to get off. When she refused, the conductor tried to remove her by force. Eventually, with the aid of a police officer, Jennings was ejected from the streetcar.
The incident sparked an organized movement among black New Yorkers to end racial discrimination on streetcars, led by notables such as Jennings’ father Thomas L. Jennings, Rev. James W.C. Pennington, and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Her story was publicized by Frederick Douglass in his newspaper, and received national attention.
Now Boston-based actress Adjovi Koene has brought Jennings’s story to life at the East Boston Branch of the Boston Public Library.
Koene has already gave one performance of the one-woman, one-hour play in the role of the civil rights hero entitled, “Streetcar to Justice.” The play is an adaptation by Amy Hill Hearth of her book of the same name.
Koene has already performed the play once on February 23 at the library and will perform a second show on March 18 at 6:30 p.m. Admission to the play is free.
“The first performance was amazing,” said Keone. “After the performance we had a lot of kids asking questions. I was a little nervous but I think it went well and I got all the lines out. I felt good about the performance and look forward to the next show on March 18. A lot of people don’t know about Elizabeth Jennings and it’s just a real interesting story involving Frederick Douglas and the future President Chester A. Arthur. It really is a neat little story that few people know about.”
Koene, who lives in Brookline, is the first actress to perform Hearth’s play. Her previous work on stage include To Kill A Mockingbird, Water, Thirsty, An Aster Blooms in the Fall, and Different is good-sometimes. Koene’s film roles include Aster & Sidney, and Brute Sanity and recently won the Best Female Actor at the Something Wicked Film Festival for her work in the feature film, Brute Sanity, currently on Amazon Prime.
Koene explains Jennings was a black schoolteacher and church organist in Manhattan who was barred one summer day in 1854 from boarding a horse-drawn streetcar meant for whites-only. Jennings was assaulted and bodily removed from the streetcar. With the support of her family, the black community of New York City, and leaders such as Frederick Douglass, she took her case to court. Represented by a very young lawyer named Chester A. Arthur – who would later become the twenty-first president of the United States – Jennings was victorious, marking the first significant step in the fight to desegregate New York City’s public transportation.
Streetcar to Justice, published in 2018 by HarperCollins/Greenwillow Books, was the first biography of Jennings.
“Everyone involved at the East Boston Library has been amazing,” said Keone. “I’m just really thrilled and excited to be able to bring this play to life and share this story with the community. Growing up you knew there was slavery and then there was the Civil Rights Movement, but there were all these great people in between. I certainly did not know that there were people in 1855 America like Elizabeth Jennings that were fighting for equal rights for African Americans. So it’s important to learn about that period and let African Americans know that their ancestors were not just slaves in America during the time leading up to the Civil War and there were numerous people that did not just sit back between that time and the Civil Rights Movement. They were out there fighting for equal rights and that’s why I just love Elizabeth Jennings’s story.”