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.
Jefferson replied without directly addressing Banneker’s complaint. He said, “Sir,I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th instant and for the almanac it contained. Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit that nature has given to our Black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America.
“I can add with truth that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris and member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document to which your whole color had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them”.
I am with great esteem, sir, your most obedient, humble servant.Th. Jefferson”
This was the start of a correspondence that would last several years.
The 1793 almanac contained Banneker’s correspondence with Jefferson, poetry by famed Black poet Wheatley, as well as anti-slavery speeches and essays from various American and English authors. It also contained “A Plan of Peace Office for the United States,” written by Benjamin Rush.
Banneker’s last almanac was published in 1797, though he prepared material for each year until 1804. Faced with declining funds, he became a recluse in his later years. He never married and sold much of his farmland to the Ellicotts.
Banneker died in his log cabin on Oct. 9, 1806, a month before his 75th birthday.
- Look t up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and work of Benjamin Banneker. Talk about it with your classmates.
- Talk about it: Examine a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac or visit it online at www.farmersalmanac.com. What useful information did you find? Discuss it with your classmates.
- Write it down: Choose a topic from today’s “Week in Black History.” Research the subject and write an essay on the topic.
This Week in Black History
- June 4, 1832: The Third National Black Convention is held in Philadelphia with 29 delegates from eight states.
- June 5, 1940: The American Negro Theater is organized in Harlem by Frederick O’Neal and Abram Hill as a training program for young actors. Graduates include Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.
- June 6, 1987: Mae Jemison is chosen by NASA to begin training as a space shuttle astronaut. She becomes the first Black female astronaut.