Black History Month 2012: Thomas L. Jennings

16 Feb

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.

10 Responses to “Black History Month 2012: Thomas L. Jennings”

  1. Phuzz February 29, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Why are you using a picture of Paul Bogle, Jamaican national hero with his post? Is this an error?

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt February 29, 2012 at 11:01 am #

      Actually, that is not a picture of Paul Bogle. It is in fact a picture of Thomas Jennings.

      • Veerle March 10, 2012 at 6:24 am #

        In Jamaica, it has been used as Bogle’s official picture since the 1960s but it is, to my knowledge, only very recently that it has appeared in association with Jennings. While there is some debate about its authenticity, it is unlikely to be of Jennings, who was in his mid sixties by the time this type of photography was patented in the US. Would love to know more about your image source, as that may shed further light on the correct identification. You may find the following links interesting: and

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt March 10, 2012 at 8:04 am #

        Thank you for your comment and for the link. Sadly, as you know there is no way for any one to prove the authenticity of the attribution of the photograph, which points to yet another intersection of racism and loss of identity. I really do appreciate your comment. If either of us should find definitive proof of the identity, we should let each other know.

  2. kdavis750 October 29, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

    The picture you claim to be of Thomas Jennings is a picture of Paul Bogle of Jamaica West Indies.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 29, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

      Thank you for weighing in here regarding the picture. There is still a great amount of dispute about the origin and identity of this picture. If you have documentation of proof, I more than invite you to share that documentation.

  3. S Shaw October 13, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    So helpful and awesome tips. This helped me in my history. Best facts I could find.

    Thanks A Lot

  4. Amy Hill Hearth October 13, 2016 at 11:15 am #

    Did you ever learn the identity of the man in the photograph? Was it Thomas L. Jennings? If so, do you have a link?

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 13, 2016 at 11:37 am #

      Amy, thank you for checking in regarding the picture of Jennings. After an enormous amount of time and energy, I cannot find definitive evidence this is his photograph and there is enough evidence to support that this is his picture–messy, I know. Peace, Michael.

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