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Black Activists of 19th Century NYC

Two black and white photographs in a hinged wood and gold case. The man, left, and woman, right, are black and wear a fashionable dark suit and dress.

Explore the stories of David Ruggles, the Lyons family, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, and Sarah Garnet to learn about their lives, the actions they took to fight for abolition and full emancipation for Black Americans in 19th-century New York City, and their legacies for today. 

Each profile includes questions to shape discussion and sources for further reading. 

David Ruggles

A drawing of the head and shoulders of a Black man in profile. The man wears a suit, top hat, and glasses and has a cravat tied elegantly around his neck.
David Ruggles. Print. Amistad Collection. Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana. 

David Ruggles, born in 1810, was a prominent member of New York City’s abolitionist community. Ruggles helped to expand the opportunities available to New York’s growing Black community and worked to end slavery in the United States, pushing the city to the forefront of the fight for freedom. 

Read his story here.

To learn more about David Ruggles, discover primary sources that bring his story to life, and find Passport to Social Studies curriculum connections, check out the NYCDOE and MCNY curriculum supplement Hidden Voices: Untold Stories of New York City History (pages 47-53). 

To learn more about abolition in New York City, explore the section "What has New York to do with Slavery? The Battle Over Abolition 1830-1865" in the Museum’s exhibition Activist New York

David Ruggles is featured in the  New York At Its Core and Activist New York  exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York.   

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

A full-length black and white studio portrait of Black woman. She wears a long dress with overskirt, bustle, and lace, and a neck brooch and earrings.
Portrait of Elizabeth Jennings Graham in “The Story of an Old Wrong,” The American Woman’s Journal, July 1985. Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.

Born in 1827, Elizabeth Jennings Graham is most famously known as the “Nineteenth-Century Rosa Parks” for taking legal action against the Third Avenue Railroad Company in New York City for racial discrimination. 

Read her story here.

To learn more about Elizabeth Jennings Graham, discover primary sources that bring her story to life, and find Passport to Social Studies curriculum connections, check out the NYCDOE and MCNY curriculum supplement Hidden Voices: Untold Stories of New York City History (pages 65-70). 

Elizabeth Jennings Graham is featured in the New York At Its Core exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.   

The Lyons Family

Two black and white photographs in a hinged wood and gold case. The man, left, and woman, right, are black and wear a fashionable dark suit and dress.
Double ambrotype portrait of Albro Lyons, Sr. and Mary Joseph Lyons. ca. 1860, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
Two black and white photographs on each side of a hinged wood and gold case show two Black girls wearing dresses in matching fabric and jewelry.
Maritcha Lyons and her younger sister Pauline. ca. 1860, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Albro and Mary Lyons were dedicated abolitionists in 19th-century New York who fought to end slavery and protect those escaping bondage. Their daughter Maritcha Lyons later built a career as a teacher and activist for racial justice and women’s suffrage. 

Read their story here.

Albro and Mary Lyons are featured in the case study "What has New York to do with Slavery? The Battle Over Abolition 1830-1865" in the Museum’s exhibition Activist New York.  

Sarah Garnet

A black and white formal portrait photograph of a Black woman wearing a striped dress or waistcoat, lace and ribbon collar, and earrings.
Sarah J.S. Tompkins Garnet. c. 1860. Photographs and Print Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library / Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations 

Born in Brooklyn in 1831, Sarah Jane Smith Thompson Garnet (sometimes spelled "Tompkins") was an educator and an activist. Garnet was the first Black woman to become a principal in the New York City school system and she co-founded the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, which advocated for voting rights for women and racial equality for all Black Americans.   

Read her story here.

Sarah Garnet was featured in the 2017-2018 exhibition Beyond Suffrage: A Century of New York Women in Politics at the Museum of the City of New York.   

To learn more about Garnet’s role in the fight for women’s suffrage, check out the MCNY lesson plan "'Working Together, Working Apart:’ How Identity Shaped Suffragists’ Politics."

Learn More 

MCNY Digital Education 

Information about the Museum’s programs for teachers, students, and families, as well as online lesson plans and educational resources, can be found on the Museum’s Digital Education Hub: mcny.org/DigitalEd

Activist New York  

Visit the Activist New York exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York to learn more about the city’s history of activism and the people who have propelled social change from the 1600s to today.   

Explore the Activist New York online exhibition and discover classroom resources and lesson plans by visiting activistnewyork.mcny.org.

Supporters

Education programs in conjunction with Activist New York are made possible by The Puffin Foundation, Ltd.  

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The Frederick A.O. Schwarz Education Center is endowed by grants from The Thompson Family Foundation Fund, the F.A.O. Schwarz Family Foundation, the William Randolph Hearst Endowment, and other generous donors.  

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