Thomas L. Jennings was an Black American inventor, tradesman, and abolitionist.
Thomas L. Jennings was born free in New York City, in 1791. As a youth Jennings learned a trade as a tailor, which included dry-cleaning. Jennings built a dry-cleaning business and fell in love and married a woman who was born into slavery Elizabeth (1789 – March 5, 1873). Jennings used his saving from his dry-cleaning business to purchase his wife freedom, but she was instead converted to the status of an indentured servant and was not eligible for full emancipation until 1827. Jennings and Elizabeth had three children together, two daughters Matilda Jennings Thompson (1832 – Unknown), who was a dressmaker in New York and wife to James A. Thompson, who was an Mason, Their other daughter was Elizabeth Jennings Graham (March 1827 – June 8, 1901), was an teacher and Civil Rights activist, Whom won a court case after suing the Third Avenue Railway Company and it’s company racist conductor. They also had one son James E. Jennings (Unknown – Unknown), was a school teacher in New York City. Children born to slave mothers before 1827, were considered to be free, but were required to serve apprenticeships to their mother master until they reach their mid to late 20’s. Not wanting to have his children born into slavery, Jennings spent most of his earnings on legal fees to purchase his wife and some of his children out of bondage. Their daughter Elizabeth was the only child born free. Jennings was also very passionate about the abolitionist movement and he also help funded the abolitionist causes.
After building his dry-cleaning business, Jennings became well-respected in the Black community. Jennings was the first black American man to receive a United States patent. The patent was awarded on March 3, 1821 (U.S. patent 3306x), for his discovery of a process called dry-scouring which is the fore-runner of today’s modern dry-cleaners. Jennings success in gaining a patent resulted in a considerable amount of controversy. The United States Patent Laws of 1793, stated that “the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual, thus slaves could not patent their own inventions and the efforts would be property of their master”. But, Jennings was a free man and was granted full rights to his invention. In 1861, United States Congress passed a law to extend patent rights to slaves.
Jennings also supported the abolitionist movement and became active in working for civil rights of free blacks. He was active on issues related to emigration to other countries; opposing colonization in Africa, as proposed by the American Colonization Society; and supporting expansion of suffrage for black men. Jennings also served as assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color, which met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June of 1831.
Thomas Jennings was a leader in the cause of abolitionism and Black-American civil rights. After his daughter, Elizabeth, was forcibly removed from a “whites only” streetcar in New York City, he organized a movement against racial segregation in public transit in the city; the services were provided by private companies. Elizabeth Jennings won her case in 1855. Jennings along with James McCune Smith (April 18, 1813 – November 17, 1865), and Rev. James William Charles Pennington (1807–1870), created the Legal Rights Association (LRA), in 1855, a pioneering minority-rights organization. Its members organized additional challenges to discrimination and segregation, and gained legal representation to take cases to court. A decade after Elizabeth Jennings won her case, New York City streetcar companies stopped practicing segregation.
Thomas L. Jennings died in New York City in 1856, at the age 65.