Thomas L. Jennings (January 1, 1791 – February 13, 1856) was an African-Americaninventor, tradesman, entrepreneur, and abolitionist in New York City, New York. He has the distinction of being the first African-American patent-holder in history; he was granted the patent in 1821 for his novel method of dry cleaning. Jennings’ invention, along with his business expertise, yielded a significant personal fortune much of which he put into the Abolitionist movement in the United States
Early life and family
Thomas L. Jennings was born on January 1, 1791, to a free African-American family in New York City. He later married a woman named Elizabeth, who was born a slave in Delaware, 1798 and died March 5, 1873. Under New York’s gradual abolition law of 1799, she was converted to the status of an indentured servant and was not eligible for full emancipation until 1827. It freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but only after they had served “apprenticeships” of twenty-eight years for men and twenty-five for women (far longer than traditional apprenticeships, designed to teach a young person a craft), thus compensating owners for the future loss of their property.
Jennings and his wife had three children: Matilda Jennings (b. 1824, d. 1886), Elizabeth Jennings (b. March 1827 d. June 5, 1901), and James E. Jennings (b. 1832 d. May 5, 1860). Matilda Jennings was a dressmaker and wife of James A. Thompson, a Mason. Elizabeth Jennings became a schoolteacher, activist, and church organist and was the wife of Charles Graham, whom she married on June 18, 1860. James E. Jennings was a public school teacher and musician.
Jennings was a tailor who later opened a dry cleaning business in New York City. He eventually opened his own store on Church Street, which became one of the largest clothing stores in New York City.
Thomas developed his dry cleaning process called dry-scouring as a tailor. His customers often complained of their clothes being ruined by stains, so he started experimenting with different chemicals that could protect the fabric while removing stains. Thomas Jennings earned a large amount of money as a tailor and with his dry scouring invention made even more. Thomas spent the majority of his money on abolitionist activities. In 1831, Thomas Jennings became the assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, PA.
Thomas L. Jennings was the first black man to receive a patent. The patent was awarded on March 3, 1821 (US Patent 3306x) for his discovery of a process called dry-scouring which was the forerunner of today’s modern dry-cleaning. Jennings was born free in New York City, New York in 1791. In his early 20s he became a tailor but then opened a dry cleaning business in the city. While running his business Jennings developed dry-scouring.
The patent to Jennings generated considerable controversy during this period. Slaves at this time could not patent their own inventions; their effort was the property of their master. This regulation dated back to the US patent laws of 1793. The regulation was based on the legal presumption that “the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual.” Patent courts also held that slaves were not citizens and therefore could not own rights to their inventions. In 1861 patent rights were finally extended to slaves.
Thomas Jennings, however, was a free man and thus was able to gain exclusive rights to his invention and profit from it. Jennings was a passionate abolitionist who used the income from his invention to free the rest of his family from slavery and fund abolitionist causes. He served as assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color which met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June 1831.
Civil rights activism and legacy
Jennings was a leader for the cause of abolitionism and African-American civil rights in the United States.
After his daughter, Elizabeth Jennings, was forcibly removed from a “whites only” New York City streetcar in 1854, he organized a movement against racial segregation in public transit in the city. He helped arrange her legal defense, which included the young future President Chester Arthur, and won her case in 1855. Along with James McCune Smith and Rev. James W.C. Pennington, Jennings created the Legal Rights Association later in that year, a pioneering minority-rights organization. Its members organized additional challenges to discrimination and segregation, and gained legal representation to take cases to court. In 1865, a decade after Elizabeth Jennings won her case, New York City streetcar companies stopped practicing segregation.
He was active on issues related to emigration to other countries; opposing colonization in Africa, as proposed by the American Colonization Society; and supporting expansion of suffrage for African-American men.
He founded and was a trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a pillar in the Harlem African-American community.
Thomas Jennings died in New York City in 1856.