Black History month is filled with stories of African-Americans that are overrated. The guy who "invented" the traffic light in Cleveland really didn't. Oh he was a good businessman and he has a good story. Don't get me wrong. But he does not belong on the same level as Thomas Alva Edison.
This guy is. He invented dry cleaning.
Bonus: A century before Rosa Parks, his daughter fought to integrate buses in the North -- and won.
This is a chapter from my book, "Exceptional Americans" (on Kindle for $2.99, and as a paperback), it is a book about Americans regardless of skin tone.
19. Thomas Jennings, the real George Jefferson.When he created the TV comedy, “All In The Family,” Norman Lear gave Archie Bunker a neighbor who was a successful black businessman named George Jefferson. But 150 years, there was a very real black man named Thomas Jennings, who not only was a dry cleaner in New York City in the 19th century, but he invented the modern process of using chemicals to clean clothes without using water.
However, while George Jefferson dealt with occasional racial slights, Thomas Jennings lived in a slave state (New York did not completely abolish slavery until 1827) that practiced segregation with Jim Crow laws before there was a Jim Crow. His wealth would help him fight it.
Thomas Jennings was born a free man in New York City, New York, sometime in 1791. He apprenticed as a tailor and became a skilled craftsman.
“Jennings reputation grew such that he was able to open his own store on Church street which grew into one of the largest clothing stores in New York City. Jennings, of course, found that many of his customers were dismayed when their clothing became soiled, and because of the material used, were unable to use conventional means to clean them. Conventional methods would often ruin the fabric, leaving the person to either continue wearing the items in their soiled condition or to simply discard them. While this would have provided a boon to his business through increased sales, Jennings also hated to see the items, which he worked so hard to create, thrown away. He thus set out experimenting with different solutions and cleaning agents, testing them on various fabrics until he found the right combination to effectively treat and clean them. He called his method 'dry-scouring' and it is the process that we now refer to as dry-cleaning,” according to historian Gaius Chamberlain.
The ancient Romans used ammonia for dry cleaning their woolen togas. The ammonia came from urine, and the Roman government taxed the collection of urine. Please, do not tell Washington, or we will all be paying a piss tax.
But the process was lost to antiquity. Besides, Jennings developed a far more effective system that he patented. Alas, a fire in the Patent Office in 1836 destroyed his original patent papers, however, the U.S. Patent Office issued the patent on March 3, 1821. The patent is now listed as US Patent 3306x due to the loss of the paperwork in the fire, which led to a new numerical system for patents after the fire.
However, while the sketches and details of dry scouring were lost in the fire, we do know that this was the first patent issued to an African-American.
Quickly, Jennings earned more money from patent royalties than he did tailoring. He plowed the money into abolitionist causes, beginning with the manumission of his wife and children. He had married a slave, as there were not enough free black women available to be a wife. Interracial marriage? In antebellum America? Only between whites and Indians or Indians and blacks, and then only along the frontier.
But because Mrs. Jennings had been a slave, their children were considered slaves as well. He had to pay to liberate his own children.
The logic behind this cockamamie system of law cobbled by hypocrites is impossible to untangle under the web of its lies and contradictions. Slavery was indeed this nation's original sin and its immorality seldom received challenge by the leaders of the day. Indeed, the House of Representatives forbade members from even discussing slavery; only John Quincy Adams, the revered former president, got away with delivering abolitionist speeches when he became a congressman after his presidency.
Jennings had little choice but to support the fledgling abolition movement. In 1831, he attended the first Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and served as its assistant secretary.
However, his great wealth from his patent was no equalizer. New York state had segregation laws and he was barred from voting. In 1860, black suffrage (the right to vote) was voted down overwhelmingly, even as Lincoln carried the state.
Nevertheless, his money did strike a blow for civil rights and the right of black people to ride the streetcars in New York City. On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings was running late to attend the First Colored Congregational Church, where she was an organist. 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. She refused -- 100 years before Rosa Parks.
However, a policeman helped the conductor eject her. Well, Miss Jennings said we shall just see about that. Frederick Douglass took up the cause, a did Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, who observed in February 1855, “She got upon one of the Company's cars last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.”
With her father's money she was able to hire a lawyer in Brooklyn Circuit Court, where Judge William Rockwell ruled that “Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”
The jury awarded her $225, plus $22.50 for legal fees. Her lawyer was future President Chester Arthur. One reason economic success secures personal liberty is it helps you employ better attorneys.
A year later, her father died at 65, having lived a good life thanks to his skills as a tailor, an inventor and a businessman. You wonder how many more Thomas Jennings there were in America back then consigned to picking cotton. But we can only learn from the past, not repair it.