A Bold Man of Color: Thomas L. Jennings and the Proceeds of a Patent

By Jerry Mikorenda

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Thomas L. Jennings was the first African American granted a patent by the United States, but he was also a shrewd businessman, an ardent abolitionist and a civil rights leader.

He was a founding member of many early philanthropic rights organizations such as the Wilberforce Society, the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, the Phoenix Society, the New York Vigilance Committee and the Legal Rights Association.

BV NYC Indentures, MS 2085 courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

BV NYC Indentures, MS 2085 courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

A native New Yorker, Jennings was among the “one thousand citizens of color” who volunteered to dig trenches to fortify New York City during the War of 1812. Well respected and highly regarded, he signed Certificates of Freedom for other black men vouching for their status as free Americans. A tailor and clothier by trade, he apprenticed with one of Manhattan’s “most celebrated tailors” before opening his own shop on Williams Street at age 19. During this time, Jennings began experimenting with chemicals to remove stains from his customer’s expensive clothing.

On March 3, 1821, the United States government granted Jennings a patent for a process called "dry scouring" a forerunner of today’s dry-cleaning. When a rival tailor illegally used the invention, he found Jennings was not one to trifle with. Jennings sued him in the city’s Marine Court and won $50 when he dramatically produced the Letters of Patent. Signed by John Quincy Adams, Patent x3306* was an important achievement because it recognized Jennings as a free US citizen at a time when forces such as the American Colonization Society opposed the right of free African Americans to live here.

Jennings used the wealth from patent royalties to help promote social change for equal rights. He was a key member of the first three National Conventions of the People of Colour and trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. In 1827, he along with several other black business leaders was instrumental in establishing Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first African American newspaper.

New York Gazette, March 13, 1821

New York Gazette, March 13, 1821

A champion of the Anti-Colonialization Movement, he addressed the issue head on in a speech he gave before the New York Society for Mutual Relief in 1828.

“Our claims are on America; it is the land that gave us birth; it is the land of our nativity, we know no other country, it is a land in which our fathers have suffered and toiled; they have watered it with their tears, and fanned it with sighs.

“Our relation with Africa is the same as the white man’s is with Europe, only with this difference, the one emigrated voluntarily, the other was forced from home and all its pleasures…”

Jennings' patent letter

Jennings' patent letter

The rest of the Jennings family followed his example. Like his father, Jennings’ eldest son William was an agent for African American newspapers and an abolitionist leader in Boston. Another son Thomas served on antislavery committees with Frederick Douglass and was a renowned dentist and vestryman in New Orleans. Jennings wife and daughters were active in the Female Literary Society of New York that raised money to free slaves and promoted the rights of African American women.

In 1854, his youngest daughter Elizabeth won a court decision that desegregated New York City’s public transit system. The Legal Rights Association he formed to fight for that cause went on to become an early watchdog organization that reported civil rights violations and raised money for lawsuits.

Jennings died in 1859 at the age of 68. In his eulogy to him in the Anglo-African newspaper, Frederick Douglass called Jennings, “a bold man of color” who led an “active, earnest and blameless life.”

The epitaph on his headstone in Cypress Hills Cemetery sums up his life succinctly “Defender of Human Rights.”


Jerry Mikorenda is a writer living in Northport. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and The Boston Herald, among other magazines and blogs. He recently completed a biography of Elizabeth Jennings, entitled The First Freedom Rider.


*In 1836, a massive fire destroyed the US Patent House in Washington D.C. The patents lost during the blaze, including Jennings’, are known as the X-patents.

Sources

Aptheker, Herbert. “The Negro in the Abolitionist Movement,” Science & Society 5.2 (1941): 148–172. Web.

Sterling, Dorothy, ed. Speak Out in Thunder Tones: Letters and Other Writings by Black
Northerners, 1787–1865. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

New-York Gazette & General Advertiser, March 13, 1821, p. 4.

New York American, December 6, 1821

Anglo-African, April 1859, vol. 1, pp. 126-28.