With origins in the early 1900s, Black History Month is celebrated across the United States each February and is meant to showcase the accomplishments of generations of Black Americans who have shaped our society. The National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) is proud to honor Black creators, innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), during this important month and throughout the year.
In celebration of Black History Month, the NIHF Museum is sharing a new exhibit just outside its doors in the atrium of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia. This exhibit honors the work, impact and family legacies of two NIHF Inductees. We invite you to explore this exhibit, reflect on the impact of these Hall of Famers and their descendants, and consider where your own innovative journey could take you.
Honoring World-Changing Innovators
Inventor of Dry Scouring
Thomas Jennings was a skilled tailor who ran a successful dry cleaning business in New York City. Dissatisfied with the typical cleaning methods of the time, he created dry scouring, a cleaning method that did not harm clothing. In 1821, he earned a patent for his invention — likely the first U.S. patent awarded to a Black inventor.
Jennings’ monumental patent represented more than an advance in dry cleaning that has inspired methods still used today. While Black Americans faced significant obstacles to patenting their work, including unchecked discrimination and a difficult and expensive patent process, Jennings’ patent recognized him as a free U.S. citizen whose intellectual property would be protected.
Jennings was not only a prominent entrepreneur, but he was also a civil rights advocate. Using profits from his patent, Jennings supported the abolitionist and desegregation movements occurring in America. He and his daughter Elizabeth led the push to desegregate public transportation in New York City in 1854. Thomas Jennings also assisted in the organization of the Legal Rights Association in 1855. The association challenged discrimination while funding and organizing the legal defense for court cases.
Upon Jennings’ death, he was eulogized by Frederick Douglass, who wrote about the importance of his patent and his activism. NIHF honors and celebrates his lasting impact as both a human rights advocate and an inspiring inventor.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham
Educator and Civil Rights Advocate
Thomas Jennings’ youngest daughter, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, was both a dedicated educator and an impactful figure in the desegregation movement. Known as the “Original Freedom Rider,” she gained national attention when she refused to leave a horse-drawn streetcar in New York City in 1854. Jennings Graham and her father brought the streetcar company to court and won their case, which was instrumental in the desegregation of New York City’s transit system.
Jennings Graham later established the city’s first kindergarten for Black children. She operated the kindergarten out of her home until her death in 1901.
In honor of the impact she made in the city, an “Elizabeth Jennings Place” street sign was installed in 2007 in Manhattan, where Jennings Graham first took a stand.
Inventor of Blood Plasma Preservation
Charles Drew was a surgeon, educator and pioneer in blood plasma preservation. Influencing blood plasma storage, processing and shipment, Drew’s work continues to help save lives today.
Drew was a graduate of Amherst College, McGill University and Columbia University. He began studying blood transfusions as an undergraduate student and continued throughout his education and medical training. In 1938, while he was a Rockefeller Fellow and doctoral student, he focused his research on blood storage and showcased his expertise through his dissertation on blood preservation. Shortly after, Drew advanced to medical director of Plasma for Britain, establishing new industry standards.
In 1941, Drew set up the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and became the first Black surgeon to serve as examiner on the American Board of Surgery. He was appointed chief of staff at Freedmen’s Hospital in 1944, and as he continued to acquire accolades within the medical field, he also acted as a mentor to other surgeons. As you interact with Drew’s story through NIHF’s new exhibit, we encourage you to imagine the legacy you would like to build.
Charlene Drew Jarvis
Science and Health Advocate, Former Elected Public Official and University President
The second of Charles Drew’s four children, Charlene Drew Jarvis has proudly maintained her father’s legacy of service.
As a doctoral fellow and research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, Drew Jarvis advocated for science and health education.
She also served as Southeastern University’s first woman president and became the chair of the City Council of the District of Columbia’s Economic Development Committee. The committee launched the Housing Production Trust Fund and other initiatives to counter discriminatory lending practices among commercial banks.
Experience Our Newest Exhibit
We invite you to take a closer look at our new Black History Month exhibit featuring Thomas Jennings and Charles Drew throughout the month of February 2022.
Charles Richard Drew, Charlene Drew Jarvis, Elizabeth Jennings Graham and a silhouette under Celebrating Black History Month