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

November 18, 2017

The abandoned, old house that attracted my attention. Photo courtesy of Ossining, N.Y. Historical Society
Every book has a “back story,” 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. I’m a nosy journalist, however, which means I pretty much notice everything. Not only that, but I’m 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 it’s because he was the twenty-first president of the United States.

I didn’t know much about Chester A. Arthur. I hadn’t even known he was a lawyer. Because I can never leave a good story alone, however, I did some additional research. That’s when I learned that he’d 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 – just 24 years old – as her attorney, and she won. Her victory was the first major breakthrough in ending discriminatory practices in public transportation in New York City. It’s a riveting story but, sadly, it’s 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 –my tenth – 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 couldn’t resist finding out about an abandoned old house.

Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York will be published January 2. You can pre-order it now from your local independent bookstore or from an online store such as

Happy Thanksgiving!

from Amy