It’s not so important what Thomas Jennings invented nearly two centuries ago in Lower Manhattan. In fact, many of the details of his patent he received were lost in a fire.
What we do know is that he developed a better way to clean clothes. Essentially, he improved dry cleaning with a method called “scouring.” Jennings received his patent in 1821, and made history in the process.
Jennings is thought to be the first African American ever to receive a U.S. patent.
“He is the earliest that we have recorded,” says Pat Sluby, a retired U.S. patent examiner and the author of “The Inventive Spirit of African Americans“. “This is 44 years before the end of slavery.”
Slavery, at this time, wasn’t even fully abolished in New York state. Yet, Jennings was undeterred.
“He was a very good entrepreneur and businessman,” says Sluby.
Jennings’s work even caught the attention of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist hero. Douglass wrote about Jennings after his death. He says that when Jennings became an adult, he started his own tailoring business, and saw a market opportunity for a better way to clean clothes.
Now, getting a patent wasn’t so easy for anyone in the 1800s.
“At that time, patenting was seen to be a God-given ability. And, people of color, black people, were seen to be genetically inferior,” says Rayvon Fouché, director of the American studies program at Purdue University. “So the idea of a black person receiving a patent was completely confusing and unbelievable to most.”
Jennings’s business and patent brought him success. As he got older and wealthier, he supported anti-slavery movements and organizations. It rubbed off on his children, especially his daughter, a schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings Graham.
“Well, we characterize her as the first Rosa Parks,” says Calvin Butts, pastor at the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church, where both Thomas Jennings and his daughter were members.
In 1854, Elizabeth Jennings was looking for a streetcar—horse-drawn in those days. She got on the first one that came, and, after a struggle, was forcefully removed because she was black.
With the same spirit that led her father to file for a patent, the younger Jennings sued.
“It was amazing that she could bring litigation against a white-owned company and win,” Butts says.
It went all the way to the Supreme Court, with none other than attorney Chester Arthur, future President of the United States, winning the case for Jennings.
Reverend Butts often tells her story to his congregation. Outside the Abyssinian Baptist Church, there used to be a mural showing Elizabeth Jennings’ story. He says children who saw it were amazed.
“And, that just opened up their eyes to a whole new part of history, particularly in New York,” he says.
But for her father, Thomas Jennings, it’s that first patent that is his lasting legacy. When Frederick Douglass wrote about Jennings’ patent, he pointed out that although it was well known that Jennings was a black man of “African descent,” these letters recognize him as a “citizen of the United States.”
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