This is the eighth entry in the series Honoring Black History.
I hadn’t heard about Thomas Jennings until recently, but his story is a pretty impressive one. Did you know he invented dry cleaning? Yeah, a white man is often credited with the invention of modern dry cleaning, but Thomas Jennings invented the “dry scouring” technique that gave birth to modern dry cleaning. He also successfully patented the idea, becoming the first black man to be awarded a patent for his invention. In 1821, a full 42 years before the Emancipation Proclamation!
As you’d expect given the time, many whites tried to keep Thomas Jennings from receiving his patent. But he was a free man and under patent law at that time, he was eligible to patent his invention.1
He used the proceeds earned from his patent (and from his tailoring business) to purchase freedom for his wife and several of his children, who were still bound to a slaveholder as “indentured servants” and “apprentices” under New York’s gradual abolition law of 1799. Not only that, he continued to use his earnings to support the abolitionist movement, voting rights, and civil rights for blacks throughout the United States.
When his daughter Elizabeth was forcibly removed from a “whites only” streetcar in New York City in 1854, he helped her bring a lawsuit against the streetcar operator (it was all private companies back then). Elizabeth won the case in 1855, and her father helped found the Legal Rights Association to push for minority rights and challenge racial discrimination. Her case was also the catalyst that helped desegregate public transit throughout New York.
I truly appreciate Thomas Jennings’ tenacity and commitment to helping others, especially his willingness to put his own money on the line to do so. I also appreciate the irony of using an establishment of white privilege (patents) to undermine the very foundations of white supremacy.
The patent laws changed in 1858, granting slaveholders ownership over the intellectual products of their slaves. Strangely, in 1861, the Confederate States of America granted slaves the right to hold patents. They did that nearly a decade before the United States returned that right. ↩
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