Thank you for visiting The Elizabeth Jennings Project! I am Katherine Assante Perrotta, Ph.D., a former middle school social studies teacher and Assistant Professor of Education with a Social Studies Emphasis. This site is a resource for teachers, scholars, and students who are interested in learning more about what historical empathy is, how it can be implemented as an instructional method in history and social studies, and how other active learning strategies such as oral history research and local history studies can foster deeper student engagement and historical thinking through document analysis of Elizabeth Jennings and other people who have been missing from mainstream historical narratives and the social studies curriculum. Please scroll to read about Elizabeth Jennings and my journey creating and sharing this project with social studies and history teachers, students, and practitioners!
The Elizabeth Jennings Project is named in honor of antebellum African American civil rights activist and teacher Elizabeth Jennings. On a Sunday morning in Lower Manhattan in July of 1854, Jennings and her friend were on their way to church. They attempted to board a horse-drawn trolley car operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company when the Irish conductor told them they had to wait for a car reserved for “their people.” When Jennings refused, she was forcibly removed from the trolley car by the conductor and a nearby police officer. Jennings recounted her ordeal to her father, prominent African American abolitionist and entrepreneur Thomas L. Jennings, who had her testimony read to her church congregation. With the help of the Legal Aid Society, Thomas L. Jennings hired the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur to represent his daughter in a civil case against the Third Avenue Railroad Company. Future U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, argued in New York State Supreme Court in February 1855 that the Third Avenue Railway Company was liable for damages due to their violation of common carrier laws. Common carrier laws stipulated that paying customers on public conveyances were entitled to ride, despite policies of private companies that enforced segregation ordinances on mass transit. Judge Vincent Rockwell instructed the jury to find in Jennings’ favor, and she was rewarded $225, which was actually half of what she sued for. Nonetheless, Elizabeth Jennings set an important legal precedent for African Americans to use the legal system to challenge segregation ordinances, particularly in the North prior to the Civil War. However, Jennings remains a relatively obscure historical figure who is missing from mainstream narratives and the social studies curriculum.
The Elizabeth Jennings Project began in 2007 when I discovered her story while reading Life on the Lower East Side (Dans & Wasserman, 2006, p. 194). I was riding on the MTA Express Bus #10 on my way home to Staten Island from a professional development workshop at the Museum of the City of New York. At the time, I was a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher in Brooklyn with the New York City Department of Education and pursuing my Master of Art degree in History from the City University of New York College of Staten Island. I was intrigued by Jennings’ story because I never heard of her or was completely aware of how issues of segregation were prevalent in New York City prior to the Civil War. Before I discovered Jennings, I took a course on New York City history as an undergraduate social studies education student at the State University of New York College at Oneonta and learned about the 1741 slave conspiracy and the 1863 Draft Riots. I had not, however, heard of Elizabeth Jennings and her family, who played a prominent role in African American emancipation and education in New York City from the Revolutionary War until the turn of the 20th century. I tried to write my Master’s thesis on Jennings, but at the time, I could not find enough primary sources to support such a project while I was under time constraints to obtain my professional teaching license in New York State. So I put what I could find on her away, hoping to resurrect this research one day….
….which came in 2011 when I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Teaching and Learning/Social Studies Education at Georgia State University in Atlanta. I decided to research Jennings from a pedagogical and curricular angle with regard to why she was an overlooked figure in mainstream historical narratives and social studies curricula, particularly in New York. Eventually, I was able to gather enough primary sources to publish an educational biography about Jennings where I connected her story to overarching issues of the under/misrepresentation of race in the social studies curriculum. Still, I had to figure out how to make what I had enough to justify a dissertation. Back in 2014, I met with Dr. Alan J. Singer, social studies expert and professor at Aldephi University, to discuss Jennings with him as he wrote about her in his book New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth. He asked me a profound question that I thought about constantly: “why should anyone care about Elizabeth Jennings?” Eventually I had my answer; I realized that the issue of care with regard to how and why we study history connected with the instructional aim of historical empathy, and that Elizabeth Jennings could be a great example to promote these aims in the social studies curriculum.
I took all the available primary and secondary sources about Jennings and developed a five-lesson instructional unit titled “The Elizabeth Jennings Project” (EJP) geared towards promoting historical empathy skills in middle and secondary social studies students. Historical empathy refers to the process in which students/practitioners of history 1) identify the perspectives of historical figures based on primary source evidence, 2) explain how these perspectives connect to the historical context of the times in which documents were produced, and 3) make affective connections to this content that are relevant to students’/practitioners’ lives and/or current events without judging the past based on today’s terms. Upon researching more about historical empathy, I found that the majority of research studies or curricular units focused on famous people or events, such as Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, and the Salem Witch Trials. I wondered if students could demonstrate the three elements of historical empathy when studying an underrepresented historical figure such as Elizabeth Jennings.
I taught the EJP with four middle and high school social studies classes at a co-educational private school in the Northeast, and using a rubric that I developed from scholarship about teaching historical empathy, garnered data that showed that active learning strategies, such as class discussions and debates, as well as students’ demographic backgrounds and experiential knowledge, strongly contributed to students’ demonstration of historical empathy. My dissertation was defended in September 2016 and my Ph.D. was conferred in January 2017. My dissertation, “More than a Feeling: A Study on Conditions that Promote Historical Empathy in Middle and Secondary Social Studies Classes with ‘The Elizabeth Jennings Project,'” won the John Laska Distinguished Dissertation Award in Teaching from the American Association of Teaching and Curriculum in October 2017. My research findings on Elizabeth Jennings and conditions that promote historical empathy with The Elizabeth Jennings Project were published in the academic journals The American Educational History Journal (2017), Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue (2018), and Social Studies Research and Practice (2018).
Feel free to explore the site and contact me if you have any questions or comments!