• WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN INVENTOR TO BE GRANTED A U.S. PATENT?

    Thomas L. Jennings became the first African American known to have patented an invention when, in 1821, he was issued a patent for a dry-cleaning process known as “dry scouring.” Jennings, who owned a dry cleaning and tailoring business in New York City, was said to have used much of his profits to support the abolitionist cause. An activist for the rights of his people, Jennings served as assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in June 1831 in Philadelphia.

  • WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TO EARN A MEDICAL DEGREE?

    In 1837 James McCune Smith, the son of a wealthy merchant, earned a medical degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and returned to New York City, where he opened a practice. An eloquent speaker and writer, Smith played an active role in the abolitionist movement.

    Another African American doctor, David J. Peck, was the first to earn a medical degree in the United States, graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1847. Peck opened a practice in Philadelphia.

  • WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TO PATENT A VACUUM SYSTEM?

    In August 1843, the U.S. Patent Office issued Norbert Rillieux his first patent for a revolutionary system of refining sugar, an invention that completely changed the sugar industry. Rillieux, born in New Orleans in 1806, was the son of a slave and a plantation owner. He was sent to Paris to be educated and remained there as a teacher of applied mechanics.

    Rillieux eventually returned to New Orleans and became an engineer in the sugar refining business. Before his 1843 invention, refining the juice of sugar cane into granular sugar was a laborious operation. His vacuum system was simpler and less expensive and produced a higher quality sugar. The system was soon adopted by refineries throughout the country.

    Although Rillieux’s invention made him wealthy, his life was severely limited after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Even though he was free, it was difficult to distinguish between free people of color and those who were slaves or fugitives. In 1854, when he was forced to carry a pass to travel around New Orleans, he left the country and returned to France, where he spent the next ten years deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The European sugar industry eventually adapted his process to the refining of the sugar beet, which increased its production and added to Rillieux’s wealth.