Benjamin Banneker, the brilliant scientist and former freeman
JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 6/6/2013, 3:36 p.m.
Today's page looks at astronomer, mathematician, inventor, writer and anti-slavery activist Benjamin Banneker--yet another brilliant person of African descent, who, though mostly self-taught, demonstrated natural academic and creative genius.
Benjamin Banneker was born on Nov. 9, 1731, in Endicott Mills, Md., just outside of Baltimore. Even though he was a descendent of slaves, Banneker was a freeman. His grandmother, Molly Walsh, was a biracial English immigrant who worked as an indentured servant, which was different than a chattel slave. She went on to purchase her own small farm. She later purchased and married an African slave named Banna Ka. The name was changed to Bannaky and finally, Banneker. Banneker's mother, Walsh, was freeborn. His father, Robert, was a slave who bought his own freedom before marrying Walsh.
Young Banneker was taught to read by his grandmother and received an early education from the Quakers, but was mostly self-taught. His creative and academic prowess would not be deterred by a lack of formal education. He was a naturally curious and brilliant young man, especially in the areas of math and science.
His genius was evidenced when, in 1761, he built a wooden clock that struck faithfully every hour. He based his creation on a pocket watch, taking it apart, reassembling it, studying each piece, and then carving those pieces, including the gears, from wood to scale. The handsome wooden clock, which was the first of its kind in America, continued to work, keeping perfect time without fail until Banneker's death in 1806.
After the death of his father in 1759, Banneker took over the family farm. In 1771, the Ellicott family moved into the area. They would have a profound effect on Banneker. He became friends with George Ellicott, who loaned him books that helped him with his informal study of astronomy. That study would pay off when, in 1789, he successfully forecast a solar eclipse. His prediction was made long before the eclipse actually happened and contradicted that of established astronomers and mathematicians. The scientific world took notice.
Two years later, Banneker was hired by Major Andrew Ellicott to help with a survey of the boundaries for original territory that would become the District of Columbia. Banneker left the project due to illness and returned to Ellicott Mills, where he began working on his next project, an ephemeris, a table of values that give the positions of astronomical objects at a given date or time.
Banneker is best known for his six annual Farmer's Almanacs, which were published between 1792 and 1797 and were sold in Baltimore; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Del.; Alexandria, Va.; Petersburg, Va.; and Richmond, Va. These early editions contained information on astrological and weather forecasts, calculated by Banneker. They were anti-slavery and showcased Black brilliance, featuring the poems of Phyllis Wheatley among others. There were anti-slavery speeches and essays, as well as Banneker's own letters to Thomas Jefferson in which he called for justice for his people.
In 1791, Banneker penned a letter to Jefferson, criticizing his ownership and treatment of slaves, stating, "Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the father of mankind and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges which he hath conferred upon them that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves." He included a copy of his first almanac with the letter.