March 3, 1821, marks the 200th anniversary of National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Thomas Jennings receiving a patent — likely the first U.S. patent issued to a Black inventor. A skilled tailor and owner of a dry cleaning business, Jennings invented dry scouring, an early method of dry cleaning.
A Historic Patent
Jennings’ patent represented much more than an advance in cleaning clothing without harming the fabric. U.S. Patent No. 3306x was monumental because it “recognized Jennings as a free U.S. citizen at a time when forces such as the American Colonization Society opposed the right of free African Americans to live here.”
At the time, free Black Americans could patent their inventions, but many encountered significant obstacles, including rampant discrimination as well as a difficult and expensive patent process. Brian L. Frye, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Law, explains that it is difficult to know just how many Black inventors were actually involved in early patents. “Some Black inventors hid their race to avoid discrimination,” while others “used their white partners as proxies.”
A Commitment to Change
Not only did Jennings manage to acquire a patent in 1821, but he also dedicated much of his earnings to supporting the abolitionist and desegregation movements, helping others defend their rights and achieve their goals.
Jennings established and supported many charities and legal aid organizations. He was a founder of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper in America, and a founder and trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In 1855, he helped organize the Legal Rights Association, which challenged discrimination and funded the legal defense for cases brought to court.
A Legacy of Leadership
Jennings’ family shared his dedication to progress, equality and human rights. William, his oldest son, became an agent for Black newspapers and a leader of the abolitionist movement in Boston. Son Thomas became a successful dentist and served on antislavery committees with Frederick Douglass. Jennings’ daughters, as well as his wife, joined the Female Literary Society of New York, which “raised money to free slaves and promoted the rights of African American women.”
One of his daughters, schoolteacher Elizabeth Jennings Graham, gained national attention when she refused to leave a whites-only, horse-drawn streetcar in New York City in 1854. Together, the father and daughter brought the streetcar company to court and won their case, sparking the desegregation of New York’s transit system. Jennings Graham went on to create the city’s first kindergarten for Black children.
When Thomas Jennings died in 1859, Frederick Douglass wrote a eulogy that described Jennings as “a bold man of color” who led an “active, earnest and blameless life.” It is fitting that the epitaph on Jennings’ headstone reads simply “Defender of Human Rights.”
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