Today we honor and celebrate a sadly little-known figure in American history, inventor and abolitionist Thomas L. Jennings. Born a free black in New York City in 1791, he began his career as a tailor. After a few years, he began work as a cleaner. He created a process which he called dry-scouring, a precursor to modern dry cleaning.
Jennings applied for and was granted a patent for his work in 1821, becoming the first African-American to be awarded a U.S. Patent. This move caused considerable controversy, as the patent laws clearly included a color bias. Because the language specifcially excluded slaves from holding patents, however, Jennings’ status as a free man provided a legal loophole and the award held.
He used the proceeds from his invention and business to buy the freedom of many of his family members. He also contributed time and money to other abolitionsist causes. In 1831, he served as assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia. Little else is known about this pioneer. He died in New York in 1856.