One Author's Life: A Personal Blog

How an Old, Abandoned House Led Me to My New Book Topic

November 18, 2017

Every book has a ďback story,Ē or the-story-behind-the-story of how the book came about.

My new book, Streetcar to Justice, has an especially good one. I learned of the topic thanks to an old, abandoned Victorian house.

From 1987 to 1996 my husband and I lived in Ossining, New York, a village on the Hudson River about an hour north of Manhattan. There was a house in our neighborhood that was covered with vines and partially boarded up. The house was perched high on a hill and must have had beautiful views of the Hudson River.

I suppose some people would walk right past a decrepit old house and dismiss it as an eyesore, if they paid much attention at all. Iím a nosy journalist, however, which means I pretty much notice everything. Not only that, but Iím fascinated by history.

Imagine my delight when I learned that the house was the summer home of a New York lawyer named Chester A. Arthur. If his name sounds familiar itís because he was the twenty-first president of the United States.

I didnít know much about Chester A. Arthur. I hadnít even known he was a lawyer. Because I can never leave a good story alone, however, I did some additional research. Thatís when I learned that heíd had a special interest in equal rights for blacks. Among his cases was one called Elizabeth Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad Company which went to court in 1855.

Digging deeper, I learned that Elizabeth Jennings was a black schoolteacher who had been thrown off a Manhattan streetcar because of the color of her skin. She sued, with Chester A. Arthur Ė just 24 years old Ė as her attorney, and she won. Her victory was the first major breakthrough in ending discriminatory practices in public transportation in New York City. Itís a riveting story but, sadly, itís been mostly forgotten by time.

I found myself obsessed. Researching Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the 1850s in New York became my hobby of sorts for years. It evolved into a book project Ėmy tenth Ė a year ago when I wrote a proposal and my literary agent sold it to Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is my first book for middle-grade (and up) readers, the perfect audience, I believe, for the topic.

And so, more than 160 years late, Elizabeth Jennings will finally get her due in the form of a book that includes archival photos, sidebars, timelines, and copies of stories from long-defunct newspapers. And to think that it started when a nosy reporter couldnít resist finding out about an abandoned old house.