Mary Beatrice Kenner Biography

Life of an intelligent black woman with dreams


It was a regular morning in 1918 when Mary’s mother left for work. Like every day, Mary stirred awake. The squeaky door through which her mother had left was the culprit. She tried to go back to sleep again but couldn’t. Annoyed beyond measure, she huffed and started her day. At six years old, Mary had a lot to complain about. That evening, when her mother returned home, Mary asked her a question that made her chuckle.

“Mom, don’t you think someone could invent a self-oiling door hinge? Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

The idea fuelled Mary. Why wait for someone else to invent something that could let her sleep for a little longer? She got to work with all the seriousness that a six-year-old could muster but hurt her hand. Her determination dwindled then, so she dropped the idea but never forgot it. This attitude of hers would help her become the only African American woman with 5 patents in the history of America!

Young Mary was a curious girl

Since a young age, Mary had an urge to invent solutions for daily life problems which she inherited from her family. Her father Sidney Nathaniel Davidson was a preacher. He came up with the idea of a clothing press fit in a suitcase and executed it. Once he was done, he was approached by a company so that they could commercialize it. He denied this offer and chose to sell it himself after patenting it in 1914. However, the venture did not succeed. He also came up with the idea of a window washer for trains.

Apart from her father, her maternal grandfather Robert Phromeberger was also an inventor. He came up with tricolour light signals for trains. It was a revolutionary idea, but it never made him a single dime because it was stolen from him. These setbacks did nothing to curb Mary’s enthusiasm to invent things. Her mind was always full of vivid ideas of products that she wanted to bring out for the masses.

Mary in Washington D.C

Having spent her early childhood in North Carolina, she arrived in Washington D.C at the age of twelve. Her family had moved to a bigger city to build a better life. It took time for her to adjust to a new place but not too long. Once she was familiar with the city, she moved around freely, exploring and feeding her mind with new ideas and concepts. She would make rounds of the United States Patents and Trademark Office just to check if someone had already patented a self-oiling hinge. Luckily, nobody had.

She finished her high school at Dunbar High School in 1931 and enrolled at Howard University for further studies. But the road was rough for her. Her family wasn’t financially strong. Mary wanted very badly to complete her education but had to give up because she could no longer afford the tuition. Quitting after a year and a half of university was disheartening but did not stop her from stepping up to the responsibility of helping her family. She took up odd jobs to help ends meet. At times, she worked as a babysitter or an elevator operator.

Mary never shied away from doing what needed to be done.

Mary gets an idea for sanitary belt

While at high school, she had come with the idea of a sanitary belt. At that time, sanitary pads with adhesive weren’t invented. Women used cotton clothes to sustain through their menstrual cycles. The discomfort they had to endure during this testing time was what prompted Mary to come up with a belt. Having to go through it herself was a big reason behind her putting a lot of thought and effort to the idea.

The belt came with an inbuilt moisture lock pocket so it could hold the cloth in place. Thanks to the belt, the chances of outer clothes getting stained were low. Through this invention, she wanted to help women be more confident and comfortable. It was going to take time to perfect it, which she was ready to invest without any reservation. Mary was focused on coming up with the best model to make it something that women just couldn’t resist buying. She didn’t have the funds required to patent it right away, so she held onto the idea and developed it over the years.

Mary’s takes up a federal job

Mary did not have the privilege to devote all her time to just inventing. She had to support her family financially. To be able to help, she became a federal employee after having taken all kinds of odd jobs. Mary worked in the Census Bureau during World War II and then had a stint at the General Accounting Office She also worked as a chaperone to women who attended dances at the military bases in D.C. It was during this job that she met a soldier she fell in love with. It was a torrid affair that led to marriage in 1945. However, things fell apart five years later. She divorced in 1950.

This was when she retired from her federal job and became a florist. She set a small shop and started to stabilize her business. It took a while, but once she was making enough money, she started putting aside some so she could file a patent for her sanitary belt invention. While grappling with business and a dream to bring out the sanitary belt for women, she met James Jabbo Kenner who was a renowned heavyweight boxer. She married him in 1951. Over time, she became a professional floral arranger and opened three more shops dotting D.C.

Mary files a patent

In 1956, Mary had made enough to file for a patent. She felt accomplished and content because commercializing her invention had been a dream she had slept with every night.

Mary hoped that the patent would lead her to amazing things and that once the belt was commercialized, women would be more at ease. She was thrilled when a company named Sonn-Nap-Pack approached her. They found her invention interesting and wanted to license it. Mary was ecstatic. The offer brought hope and excitement in her life, which was otherwise focused around flowers and nothing more.

A victim of racism and gender bias

A company representative was to come down to D.C and have further discussions with her about the belt. However, things took an ugly turn when the company found out that she was black. In an interview with Laura F. Jeffrey’s for her book ‘Amazing American Inventors of the 20th Century’, she recalled the incident. She said, “One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant … I saw houses, cars and everything about to come my way. Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped.”

A strong and level-headed woman who persevered

It was a big blow to Mary’s confidence. It hurt to be racially discriminated against. Did the colour of her skin make her invention any less ingenious and useful? Science and inventions were for everyone to use and advance in, but racism was a roadblock that many couldn’t surpass. It wasn’t new or uncommon at the time. Not only was Mary a black person but also a woman. Her chances for licensing her patents dwindled drastically because of this. It was unfair and infuriating, but society wasn’t going to change right away. It would take time. Mary thought about how she could come up with new ideas while society progressed. She wasn’t someone who sat back down and waited for things to change but someone who made the most of the time she had. She wasn’t deterred by the incident.

Mary stumbled for a bit but got back to being her inquisitive, determined self. She believed that one day the belt would be available to thousands of women who would benefit from it. Till then, she would invent more products that could help people.

Mary moves to McLean, Virginia

Life as a florist was quickly becoming stereotypical. There was nothing more she could do or have through the business. After discussing the possibility of moving out of D.C with her husband and the five foster boys that they had adopted, Mary sold her shops in 1970 and moved to McLean, Virginia. The family lived near the Kennedy’s Complex.

Settled in a new place where she could go back to working on the ideas she had had, Mary was happy and devoted all her time to inventions and raising her boys. A new invention she patented in 1976 was that of an attachment for a walker or a wheelchair. Mary thought that the wheelchair or walker could be more useful if a solid tray and a pocket to carry things were added to it through simple adjustments. It could ease the user’s life a little to be able to carry things without having to worry about a bag. She patented this invention soon enough, hoping for someone to license it because of how practical it was.

Mary’s sister Mildred makes the family proud

In 1980, her sister Mildred had patented a board game called ‘Family Treedition’ which was a thing of pride for the whole family because no matter the roadblocks, Mary and Mildred continued to invent things. In the same year, Mary and Mildred patented an invention they had come up with together. It was a toilet paper holder. They registered the patent together, which was granted in 1982. The design was such that blind people and those with arthritis could easily pull out the paper as the loose end of the roll would dangle down the suspended holder. Through this invention, the design of the holder was improved as it made installing a new roll easier.

In 1983, Mary lost her husband. Having spent thirty happy years with her husband, Mary was suddenly faced with a new reality she had to adjust to. She put herself into inventing things and concentrating on her present life.

Her next invention was patented in 1987. It was a back washer that could be suspended on a shower wall or on a bathtub. The washer made it easy to wash areas that couldn’t be reached while bathing. It was a practical solution for those who struggled to clean their back daily. Mary filed her patent in 1986, and it was granted the following year.

Mary, a woman full of ideas

Mary’s mind was that of a genius because she thought about products that nobody else was thinking about. Her ideas were genuine, and even if she did not have any formal training, she managed to execute them with finesse. One day, she wondered if people who smoked frequently would appreciate a disposable portable ashtray holder. This ashtray holder would be attached to the cigarette packet itself. It was something she thought would be useful. She also came up with an idea of a sponge tip that could soak up the water off of an umbrella. She patented a convertible top for hidden bench seats which increased their utility. In her lifetime, she didn’t make any money out of any of her inventions.

An intelligent black woman who surged her way forward

Mary’s sanitary belt was used freely after she failed to renew her patent. Her sanitary belt was adopted over thirty years post its invention. Despite all her inventions not getting the due recognition and appreciation from the society for which she had created them, Mary did not lead a sad life. She loved to play the piano and taking care of her foster kids. She adopted one of the five sons and named him Woodrow. Her family life was happy and left her with no regrets. She frequently travelled to New York to watch Broadway shows. She led a fulfilling life and did not let racism get in her way even if it hindered her progress and kept her away from the money and fame a genius like her deserved.

She died at the age of 93 at the Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington D.C, taking with her all her brilliance and ingenuity, love for science and a gentle, loving smile.