Among the most famous cases he was involved with occurred in 1854 when Arthur was when he was one of the attorneys who successfully represented Elizabeth Jennings Graham in the case of Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad. She was an African-American teacher and church organist, and she would later become a civil rights activist. It was her case which led to the desegregation of all New York City transit systems. Her case has parallels to that of a later famed public transportation rider, Rosa Parks.
In the early 19th century, there were two common modes of public transportation: omnibuses and streetcars, both pulled by horses. But in the 1830s and early 1840s, African-Americans couldn't use public transportation if any white passenger or the driver objected. Drivers carried whips and used them to enforce this practice. Starting in the late 1840s, there were a few special omnibuses which African-Americans could ride. These buses had large signs reading "Colored Persons Allowed", but these ran infrequently, irregularly, and often not at all.
On Sunday, 16 July 1854, Elizabeth Jennings set off for the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was the organist. She was running late, so she boarded a streetcar at the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets. The conductor ordered her to get off. When she refused, the driver and the conductor brutally attacked her. They called for the aid of a police officer, and Miss Jennings was ejected from the streetcar. It sounds like she didn't leave without a fight. A report of the incident, written in the New York Tribune, read as follows:
She got upon one of the Company's cars last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.
There was an organized movement among African-American New Yorkers to end this discrimination. The leaders of this movement included the plaintiff's father Thomas Jennings, Rev. J. W. C. Pennington, and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Her story was publicized by Frederick Douglass, and received national attention.
Miss Jennings filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur. Her case was handled by the firm's 24-year-old junior partner: Chester A. Arthur, future President of the United States.
In 1855, she received a verdict in her favor. In his charge to the jury, Brooklyn Circuit Court Judge William Rockwell declared:
"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 for Miss Jennings, and awarded damages in the amount of $225.00 (comparable to $5,000 to $10,000 today), and $22.50 in costs. The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its cars desegregated. New York's public transit was fully desegregated by 1861.
Another case that Chester Alan Arthur was involved in was Lemmon v. New York, (referred to as the "Lemmon Slave Case"). In that case, Arthur was on the winning side of this 1860 decision which held that slaves being transferred to a slave state through New York would be emancipated. In November 1852, Jonathan Lemmon and his wife Juliet, who were residents of Virginia, traveled by steamer from Norfolk, Virginia to New York with eight slaves belonging to Mrs. Lemmon, for the purpose of catching a follow-on boat to Texas, where they planned to reside. The slaves were Emiline (age 23), Nancy (age 20), Lewis, brother of Nancy (age 16), Edward, brother of Emiline (age 13), Lewis and Edward, sons of Nancy (age 7), Ann, daughter of Nancy (age 5) and Amanda, daughter of Emiline (age 2). While waiting for the boat the slaves were placed in a boarding house at No. 3 Carlisle Street, where they were discovered by another African American, Louis Napoleon.
On November 6, 1852, Louis Napoleon presented a petition to one of the Justices of the Superior Court of New York City, the Honorable Elijah Paine, for a writ of Habeas Corpus producing the slaves. The suit was based on an 1817 New York law that stated "No person held as a slave shall be imported, introduced, or brought into this State on any pretense whatever. Every such person shall be free." On November 13, 1852, Justice Paine held that necessity did not require the Lemmons travel to Texas via New York, thus the slaves were free according to New York state law.
Mr. Lemmon then appealed to the New York Supreme Court, in December 1857 that court affirmed the ruling of Justice Paine. Mr. Lemmon appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, who, in March 1860, ruled on a vote of 5-3 affirming the lower courts ruling that the slaves were free.
Lemmon's lawyers relied on the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1824 decision Gibbons v. Ogden to argue that states had no right to regulate interstate commerce as that power lay in the hands of the federal government. The state's lawyers included Chester Alan Arthur, Erastus D. Culver and John Jay. They argued that the U.S. Constitution granted limited powers to the federal government, and the powers which were not granted were reserved for the state. Under the provision of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that required states to return fugitive slaves, the state argued that any requirement for states to return non-fugitive slaves was excluded.
The Court of Appeals affirmed by a vote of 5-3 in March 1860, holding that the slaves were free. Lemmon appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, but by then the Civil War was under way and the appeal was never heard.
In between the various appeals of the Lemon decision, there were some other developments in Arthur's life. In 1856, Arthur courted Ellen Herndon, the daughter of William Lewis Herndon, a Virginia naval officer. The couple became engaged to be married. Later that year, he began a new law partnership with his friend, Henry D. Gardiner. The two men traveled to Kansas where they considered purchasing land and setting up a law practice there. However this took place at that time that the state was the scene of a brutal struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, i.e. when it was known as "Bleeding Kansas". Arthur lined up firmly with the anti-slavery forces. It was not a safe place to be for the two young New York lawyers. They remained there for about three or four months before returning to New York City. Ellen Herndon's father had died in a naval disaster, the sinking of the SS Central America, and Arthur returned to comfort his fiancée. In 1859, they were married at Calvary Episcopal Church in Manhattan.
During the Civil War, Arthur served as Quartermaster for the state of New York, which brought with it the rank of Brigadier General in the army. He refused to take a field position because his wife, being from Virginia, had family fighting for the other side. Ellen died in January of 1880 from pneumonia. When Arthur became President in 1881 upon the death of James Garfield, he was unable to bring about substantial legislation for the benefit of African-Americans because he was saddled with a hostile Congress.