"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."
― Thomas L. Jennings
About Thomas L. Jennings
Thomas L. Jennings was the first African American granted a patent by the United States, but he was also a 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.
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.
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…”
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.
Thomas Jennings died in New York City in 1856. Shortly before his death, his daughter Elizabeth won a benchmark lawsuit. On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings set off for the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was an organist. Running late, she boarded a streetcar of the Third Avenue Railroad Company at the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets. The conductor ordered her to get off. When she refused, the conductor tried to remove her by force. Eventually, with the aid of a police officer, Miss Jennings was ejected from the streetcar. Her story was publicized by Frederick Douglass, and received national attention. Elizabeth Jennings filed a lawsuit in the Brooklyn Court against the driver, the conductor, and the Third Avenue Railroad Company. Because of her father's prominence and wealth, she was able to obtain the best legal representation and hired the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur to sue the bus company and was represented in court by a young attorney named Chester Arthur, who would go on to become the 21st President of the United States.
Ms. Jennings would ultimately win her case in front of the Brooklyn Circuit Court in 1855. The jury awarded damages in the amount of $225.00, and $22.50 in costs. The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its cars desegregated.”
The content from this feature is produced by Jerry Mikorenda, who 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.