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The Father of American Dry Cleaning

The First African American to Hold a U.S. Patent

first black dry cleaner

Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1856)

Whatever your profession, whether it’s education, administration, medicine, science, professional athletics, or business, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Such a pathfinder in dry cleaning was Thomas L. Jennings. In 1821, at the age of 29, Mr. Jennings became the first African American to be awarded a US Patent (No. 3306x) for his dry scouring process.

The wealth that Mr. Jennings accumulated from his dry cleaning business in lower Manhattan was not only invested in his family, all three of his children were educated, including a daughter, at a time when a female of any race receiving a college degree was rare, but he was also a leader in the abolition and civil rights movement in New York City.

One hundred years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Jennings’ daughter, Elizabeth, then a schoolteacher, resisted being forcibly removed from a whites-only, horse-drawn streetcar in 1854. Thomas Jennings hired a law firm to sue the streetcar company, and the outcome of that litigation began the process that eventually resulted, a decade later, in the desegregation of public transportation among streetcar companies serving New York City.

At his death in 1856, Frederick Douglas wrote that Jennings’ patent recognized him as a “citizen of the United States.” Few have done more in their lifetime to earn that designation than Thomas L. Jennings. His name should not be lost to history.

Some content provided by and with permission of Smithsonian Magazine.

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