Thomas Jennings The First African American To Receive A U.S. Patent

Grace Higgins | February 14th, 2020

It is widely thought that in 1821, Thomas Jennings became the first African American to ever receive a U.S. patent for his invention. Now over two centuries ago, Jennings invented a new way of cleaning clothes in Lower Manhattan. Many of the details of his patent were lost in a fire and we do not know exactly what he invented.

Historians and researchers have determined it was a better way to clean clothes. Many assume as result that he was an improved dry cleaning method which is referred to as scouring. It is a method that is commonly used in the dry cleaning industry today. Jennings received his patent in 1821, and from that day on he had made history.

The important part to note is that this was 44 years before the end of slavery. In fact, at the time that he was issued his patent, slavery was not even fully abolitioned in the state of New York. However, these things never troubled Jennings, he was an entrepreneur, a businessman and a visionary so he pushed on with his idea. His work even caught the eye of the abolitionist hero: Frederick Douglass.

Douglass covers Jennings story in his book, recalling that when Jennings entered adult life he started to work in the tailoring business and spotted a market opportunity for providing better ways to clean clothes. Now what is amazing is that getting a patent in the 1800s was no easy task for anyone. And the idea of a black person receiving a patent seemed unbelievable to most.

Jennings was able to do it, with his patent, his business saw success. As he got older and wealthier, he started to support anti-slavery movements and organizations. Jennings determination to change society for the better had an impact on his children. His daughter, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, is sometimes described as the first Rosa Parks.

It goes to show that someone’s legacy can truly live on if it has rubbed off in the right way and influences people positively.

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