Dry Cleaning and Civil Rights

Thomas Jennings was born in New York City as a free-born African American although many of his family were slaves. He was a tailor and operated a very popular clothing shop.

Customers often asked about cleaning their clothes because existing clothing processes were ineffective. Thomas saw this as an opportunity to expand his business. He found the answer in solvents that did not require the use of water. He called the approach dry-scouring (now called dry cleaning). His process is still used today.

Thomas filed for a patent and became the first African American to be awarded a patent. For a period of time, African Americans were not able to earn a patent. Inventions of slaves were awarded to slave owners (currently most employers own the rights of their employees).

When Thomas received his first royalties from his patent, he used the money to buy the freedom of his family. Thomas used subsequent royalty payments to fight against slavery.

Thomas and his wife had three children. One daughter, Elizabeth, adopted her father’s activist interests. She was removed from a street car that was whites-only. She sued the transit company. She won her case and public transit was desegregated.

Unfortunately, Thomas died in 1859 before slaves were emancipated.

It’s ironic that income generated from the intellectual property was used as a source of funds for the fight to end the concept that one human could own another one. Just imagine how the myth that African Americans who were thought to be of inferior intellect was destroyed by the financial support from the intellectual property of an African American. Just imagine why the story of Thomas Jennings isn’t better known. It is an inspiration that should be widely known.

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“Millions of people toil in the shadow of the law we make, and much of their livelihood is made possible by the existence of intellectual property rights.” – Alex Kozinski

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