Thomas L. Jennings (1791 – February 12, 1856) was an African-American tradesman and abolitionist in New York City, New York. He operated and owned a tailoring and dry-cleaning business, and, in 1821, he was the first African American to be granted a patent for the first ever dry cleaner.

Jennings was extremely active in working for his race and civil rights for the black community. In 1831, he was selected as assistant secretary to the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which met in June 1831. He helped arrange legal defense for his daughter, Elizabeth Jennings, in 1854 when she challenged a private streetcar company’s segregation of seating, and was arrested. She was defended by the young Chester Arthur, and won her case the next year.

With two other prominent black leaders, Jennings organized the Legal Rights Association in 1855 in New York, which raised challenges to discrimination and organized legal defense for court cases. He founded and was a trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and a leader in the black community.

Jennings built a business as a tailor and dry cleaner, and was well-respected in the community. He developed a process called “dry scouring” for cleaning clothes, for which he applied and received a patent from the state of New York on March 3, 1821. He spent his early earnings on legal fees to purchase his wife and some of children out of slavery. Their daughter Elizabeth Jennings was born free in March 1827 and became a schoolteacher and church organist.

Jennings also supported the abolitionist movement and became active in working for civil rights of free blacks. He worked tirelessly on issues related to emigration to other countries; opposing colonization in Africa, as proposed by the American Colonization Society; and supported expansion of suffrage for black men.

Patent controversy

Jennings’ success in gaining a patent resulted in a considerable amount of controversy. The U.S. patent laws of 1793 stated that “the master is the owner of the fruits of the labour of the slave both manual and intellectual,” thus slaves could not patent their own inventions. The efforts of slaves would be the property of their master. But, Thomas Jennings was a free man, so he gained exclusive rights to his process. In 1861 Congress passed a law to extend patent rights to slaves.