Thomas Jennings (1791-1859)
Thomas Jennings was born free in New York City in 1791. In his early 20s, he became a tailor but then opened a dry cleaning business in New York. Thomas went on to patent a process for cleaning clothing. He was the first black man to receive a patent. The patent was awarded on 3 March 1821 (US Patent 3306x) for his discovery of a process called dry-scouring which was the forerunner of today’s modern dry-cleaning.
He later used the money he earned with his invention to buy his family out of slavery. Active as an abolitionist, Jennings published petitions that advocated the end of slavery in New York.
Jennings patent is worth noting because under the United States patent laws of 1793 and 1836, both slaves and freedman could patent their inventions. However, in 1857, a slave-owner named Oscar Stuart patented a “double cotton scraper” that was invented by his slave. Historical records only show the real inventor’s name as being Ned. Stuart’s reasoning for his actions was that, “the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual”. In 1858, the U.S. patent office changed the patent laws, in response to the Oscar Stuart vs Ned case, in favor of Oscar Stuart. Their reasoning was that slaves were not citizens, and could not be granted patents. But surprising in 1861, the Confederate States of America passed a law granting patent rights to slaves. In 1870, the U.S.government passed a patent law giving all American men including blacks the rights to their inventions.
When writing about Thomas Jennings people often use the same image that is being used for Jamaican National Hero Paul Bogle to support their text, who knows how this misinformation started but it can be seen all over the interwebs. The image is definitely not Paul Bogle and some say it isn’t even Thomas Jennings.