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Early History of African American Inventors

Thomas Jennings, born in 1791, is believed to have been the first African-American inventor to receive a patent for an invention. He was 30 years old when he was granted a patent for a dry-cleaning process. Jennings was a free tradesman and operated a dry-cleaning business in New York City. His income went mostly to his abolitionist activities. In 1831, he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Slaves were prohibited from receiving patents on their inventions. Although free African-American inventors were legally able to receive patents, most did not. Some feared that recognition and most likely the prejudice that would come with it would destroy their livelihoods.

George Washington Murray was a teacher, farmer and U.S. congressman from South Carolina from 1893 to 1897. From his seat in the House of Representatives, Murray was in a unique position to bring into focus the achievements of a people recently emancipated. Speaking on behalf of proposed legislation for a Cotton States Exhibition to publicize the South’s technological process since the Civil War, Murray urged that a separate space be reserved to display some of the achievements of Southern African-Americans. He explained the reasons why they should participate in regional and national expositions, saying:

"Mr. Speaker, the colored people of this country want an opportunity to show that the progress, that the civilization which is now admired the world over, that the civilization which is now leading the world, that the civilization which all nations of the world look up to and imitate--the colored people, I say, want an opportunity to show that they, too, are part and parcel of that great civilization." He proceeded to read the names and inventions of 92 African-American inventors into the Congressional Record.

Henry Baker

What we know about early African-American innovators comes mostly from the work of Henry Baker. He was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office

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