Chester A. Arthur is one of our more obscure presidents, and that is unfortunate. He ran an honest administration that won the praise of such a jaundiced observer of the political scene as Mark Twain, and in many ways he led an interesting life. One of the aspects of his career worthy of note is a legal victory that he gained at the age of 24.
On July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, a schoolteacher and a Church organist was running late for Church. She boarded a streetcar owned by the Third Avenue Railroad Company at the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets in New York city. So far, so humdrum. However, Miss Graham was black and the Third Avenue Railroad Company banned blacks from riding on their streetcars. The conductor told her to get off and she refused. He then attempted to physically remove her, and she resisted. Finally, a policeman was summoned and he removed her from the train.
The case became a cause celebre in New York City, with Horace Greeley giving the incident maximum publicity. Miss Graham sued the streetcar company, and was represented by newly minted attorney Chester A. Arthur. In his charge to the jury hearing the case, Judge William Rockwell gave them the following instruction: ” 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.”
The Jury found in her favor, and awarded her damages of $225.00, the equivalent of at least $5,000.00 in today’s money. By comparison, a Union private in the Civil War was paid $14.00 per month, and $50.00 per month was considered a good wage for a skilled workman at this time.
The next day the Third Avenue Railroad Company announced that it would no longer ban blacks from riding its streetcars. By 1861 all New York public transit was desegregated. This was not the only civil rights case in which Arthur was involved, but that is a story for another day.