#OGEntrepreneurs: Thomas Jennings
You’ve probably never heard of Thomas Jennings, but chances are, you’ve benefited from his expertise. Jennings was a dry cleaner who developed a process called dry scouring, which is still used in dry cleaning today. Dry scouring removes stains from garments without damaging the fabric. Jennings received a patent for dry scouring and became the first black man to hold a patent in the United States.
Until 1891, slaves couldn’t get patents in the United States because their inventions were considered the property of their owners. Luckily, Jennings wasn’t a slave. He was born free and grew up in New York City, where he first worked as a tailor before transitioning into dry cleaning. His patent was awarded in 1821, when Jennings was just 30 years old. Imagine the hustle involved in being an entrepreneur in 1821!
Many of Jennings’ family members were slaves, and Jennings used the earnings from his successful dry cleaning business to buy them out of slavery and to donate to abolitionist organizations. His bent toward activism extended to his daughter, Elizabeth, who won a lawsuit against a rail company in New York City after she was kicked off a streetcar. Because of her father’s wealth, she was able to hire a highly regarded law firm. The lawsuit resulted not just in damages for Elizabeth but in the desegregation of those streetcars.
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