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Born on May 17, 1912, in Monroe, North Carolina, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was an inventor of numerous products still in use today.
Her father was inventor Sidney Nathaniel Davidson, and her mother is unknown to the public records; she has one sibling, her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith.
Throughout history, Black women have often been prevented from joining institutions committed to science, technology and engineering, but have nonetheless carried on in the face of institutional racism. Turned away because of the color of her skin, Mary Kenner persevered and ended up filing five patents with the US Government, more than any other African American woman in history.
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According to BlackPast, Kenner patented multiple inventions in her ’40s, however, she began inventing at age six when she attempted to invent a self-oiling door hinge. Invention ran in the family. Her maternal grandfather Robert Phromeberger’s most notable inventions were a tricolor light signal for trains and a stretcher with wheels for ambulances. In 1914, her father patented a clothes presser that could fit in a suitcase. In 1980, her sister invented “Family Treedition,” a family board game.
Mary Kenner had many ideas as a child, including a convertible roof that would go over the folding rumble seat of the car, a sponge tip at the end of an umbrella that would soak up rainwater, and a portable ashtray that would attach itself to a cigarette pack. When her family moved to Washington D.C. in 1924, she walked the halls of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to become familiar with the building and the patent process.
By 1931, Kenner graduated from Dunbar High School and started attending Howard University but dropped out after a year and a half for financial reasons. She then took multiple odd jobs, and in 1941, she became a federal employee, remaining there during the rest of the decade. In 1950, she became a professional florist and ran her flower shop into the 1970s while inventing things in her spare time.
Kenner’s first patent was in 1956 for the sanitary belt. While she originally invented the sanitary belt in the 1920s, she couldn’t afford a patent. Over time she improved her earlier version and other versions that were patented before hers. The sanitary belt aimed to prevent the leakage of menstrual blood on clothing, which was a common problem for women at the time.
Racism… what else?
The Sonn-Nap-Pack Company got word of this invention and contacted her intending to market her invention, however when they discovered that she was Black — they declined.
Due to the ubiquitous and united front of discrimination against Black people during the time period, many Black inventors would hire a trusted white ally to submit the paperwork on their behalf, or present as the “face” of the company. Much like modern Black homeowners who replace their own family portraits in their home with white pictures to get a fair offer, Black people have long had to hide in plain sight just to get what’s right. By Kenner representing herself, the dominant society wouldn’t allow her to access to capital which would have set her family up with generational wealth.
By not being able to strike when the iron was hot, Beltless pads were invented in the 1970s and, as tampons became more popular, women stopped using sanitary belts. Kenner never made any money off of the sanitary belt, because her patent expired and became public domain, allowing it to be manufactured freely on October 19, 1982 patent #4354643.
According to Science Museum Group, her sister, and fellow inventor, Mildred lived with multiple sclerosis, so Mary invented an attachment for her walker that included a tray and pocket, allowing Mildred the dignity of moving herself and her belongings around without assistance. Kenner was constantly seeing problems and coming up with inventions to solve them for herself, her family, and wider society.
Between 1956 and 1987 she received five total patents for her household and personal item creations. She also held a patent on a back washer that could be mounted on the shower or bathtub wall. This invention was patented in 1987 patent number 4696068.
Mary Davison Kenner married James “Jabbo” Kenner in 1951. He died in 1983. They were foster parents and adopted Woodrow, one of their five foster kids.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner died on January 13, 2006, in Washington D.C. at the age of 93.