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As a trail-blazer for modern day dry cleaning, Thomas Jennings was likely the first African-American to receive a US patent in 1821 for his invention of the ‘dry scouring.’ This feat is particularly impressive because Jennings did so over 40 years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to the Smithsonian, Jennings was only able to do this because he was born free in New York City. However, for the great majority of Black people in America prior to the Civil War, patents were unobtainable, as an enslaved person’s inventions legally were the property of his or her master.
According to The Inventive Spirit of African-Americans by Patricia Carter Sluby, Jennings started out as an apprentice to a prominent New York tailor. Later, he opened what would become a large and successful clothing shop in Lower Manhattan. At 29, Jennings secured a patent for his “dry scouring” method of removing dirt and grease from clothing.
Jennings was disappointed in conventional methods of cleaning, so he experimented until he found a successful method that did not harm clothes. In 1820, he applied for a patent and it was granted in 1821. Under the Patent Act of 1793, an individual had to sign an oath declaring that he was a citizen of the United States. Jennings, being a freeman, was a citizen and so was awarded the patent.
With the success of his business and patent, he became a leader in the abolitionist and civil rights movement in New York City. He was a founder and trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia in 1831, and helped organize the Legal Rights Association in 1855, raising challenges to discrimination, and funding and organizing legal defenses for court cases.
According to MIT, his wife, Elizabeth, was an indentured servant and he bought her freedom, in addition to the freedom of his children. Among his many efforts to end slavery, Jennings was also an avid supporter of the Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper in the U.S. Jennings’ children went on to receive an education and they all became actively involved in the abolitionist movement themselves.
His daughter, also named Elizabeth, was a schoolteacher who rose to national attention in 1854 when she boarded a whites-only horse-drawn streetcar in New York and refused to get off, hanging on to the window frame when the conductor tried to toss her out. A letter she wrote about the incident was published in several abolitionist papers, and her father hired a lawyer to fight the streetcar company.
The case was successful; the judge ruled that it was unlawful to eject black people from public transportation so long as they were “sober, well behaved, and free from disease.” The lawyer was a young Chester A. Arthur, who would go on to become the 21st US president in 1881.
Thomas Jennings passed away on February 11, 1859, six years shy of the ratification of the 13th Amendment that officially ended slavery in the US.
Though chattel slavery has ended, the exception clause in the 13th Amendment allows slavery to continue legally in the U.S. through incarceration; currently, 1.5 million people can be enslaved through this loophole.