Historical Figures: Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was a free black man born in Maryland – at the time a slave state – on November 9, 1731. His maternal grandmother was an Irish indentured servant brought to America by her owners, named Molly Welsh, who eventually won her freedom. She bought a small farm, and two slaves, whom she then freed. One of them was Benjamin’s African grandfather, Banna Ka, whom she married. One of their four daughters, Mary Banneky, took after her mother and married a freed slave named Robert. So, a free black man was born of a mixed race woman and a former slave in a forming country already plagued by slave practices.

Benjamin was very bright, and was largely self educated. His grandmother taught him to read, and Quakers had set up a community nearby with a one room school that Benjamin attended to some extent. Most of his education came from curiosity, observance, friendships and borrowed books.

In his early 20s Benjamin was fascinated by a neighbor’s pocket watch (a strange accessory at the time). He studied the mechanics intently, and was able to build a larger scale clock completely of wood, that accurately kept time for about 50 years. This was a rare wonder at the time, and is said to have earned him occasional fascinated visitors and a reputation as an intellect.

When Benjamin was 40, a Quaker milling family named the Ellicots established a gristmill a few miles from Benjamin’s farm. Benjamin became quick friends with the Ellicots, in particular George Ellicot, as the men shared interests in mechanics, astronomy, and mathematics. George loaned Benjamin many books on the subjects. Benjamin became so adept that he accurately predicted an eclipse in 1789. He was even hired to assist Andrew Ellicot, when he was hired by Thomas Jefferson, to survey the land for the new capital city of Washington D.C. in 1791.

Benjamin retired from that job due to health issues, and returned to his farm. He then published a series of almanacs from 1792-1797. His almanacs were very accurate, and distributed wildly by abolitionists of the time as proof that blacks were not intellectually inferior to whites. Banneker believed he was in a unique position to peacefully elevate and demonstrably dispute poor attitudes towards his race. He wrote openly of his race in his almanacs, and often included a portrait on the cover, in an effort to plainly demonstrate that his almanacs were certainly as good as any other almanac in circulation, and clearly written by a black man.
He even sent a copy of his yet unpublished first almanac to Thomas Jefferson in 1791, including a letter eloquently calling him out on his hypocrisy of decrying British rule of the colonies as unfair and intolerable servitude, while simultaneously condemning Black Americans to even harsher servitude, and challenging him to find fault in his almanac. Jefferson did in fact forward the almanac to Marquis de Condorcet, a French philosopher and mathematician of the time, declaring it “a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them.”

Benjamin Banneker died in his sleep after a morning walk on October 9, 1806, at 74 years old in his cabin on his farm. He will forever be remembered as an accomplished farmer, clock maker, mathematician, surveyor, astronomer, and publisher, who was a champion of civil rights and peace.

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