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Explore the Life of 19th-century African American Activist Ellen Garrison, Who Tested Nation’s First Civil Rights Act in 1866, and Later Lived in Pasadena

Published on Mar 26, 2023


Join Pasadena Museum of History as Executive Director of The Robbins House, Jen Turner, discusses the life of Ellen Garrison, a 19th-century African American activist born free as the grandchild of slaves who became the first person to test the nation’s first Civil Rights Act in court in 1866. She lived out her final years in Pasadena.

From her birth in Concord to her work with several abolitionist campaigns and her dedicated teaching career at American Missionary Schools in the Reconstruction South, learn about Garrison’s pioneering protest against segregation at a Baltimore train station and her commitment to civil rights.

She was born in 1823 in the Robbins House in Concord, Massachusetts, which is where her activism began.

From an early age, Garrison was aware of racial discrimination and followed in her mother’s footsteps as an antislavery activist. 

At the age of twelve, she marched in a Concord parade hand-in-hand with her white schoolmate “beneath the gaze of curiosity, surprise, ridicule and admiration.” She signed many petitions as a way to make her voice heard.

After the Civil War, Garrison taught newly freed people during Reconstruction. Her application explained, “I have a great desire to go and labor among the freedmen of the South. I think it is our duty as a people to spend our lives in trying to elevate our own race. Who can feel for us if we do not feel for ourselves?”

Garrison’s commitment to civil rights was tested in 1866 when she became the first person to test the nation’s first Civil Rights Act in court. Almost a century before Rosa Parks took her seat on an Alabama bus, Garrison sat in a segregated waiting room in a Baltimore train station and was “forcibly ejected.” She felt it was her duty to test the new law. “I feel as though I ought to strive to maintain my rights… it will be a stand for others….”

Despite the hostility of the post-Reconstruction South, she continued to teach and inspire others. Her teaching post was defunded, but she followed Kansas Exodusters in 1879 to again teach newly freed people. After a decade in Kansas as a teacher, prairie farmer’s wife, and stepmother, Garrison moved with her family to an egalitarian, antislavery enclave in Pasadena where she is buried with antislavery activists.

Ellen Garrison’s legacy continues to inspire those who fight for civil rights and equality today. 

To experience this presentation, join the Pasadena Museum of History on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at 7:00 p.m. to learn about the life and legacy of Ellen Garrison. The cost of the event is $10.00 to $15.00, and you can find out more information by calling 626-577-1660 or by clicking on this link.


[Editor’s note: Pasadena Now wishes to thank The Robbins House in Concord, Massachusetts, for the information and image in this story]

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