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Benjamin Banneker-Abolitionist, Inventor, and Intellectual by Elizabeth Cohan-Lawson » I For Color

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Benjamin Banneker-Abolitionist, Inventor, and Intellectual by Elizabeth Cohan-Lawson

 

Growing into a young man, Benjamin continued his innovation. In 1752, Josef Levi, a friend of Banneker’s, lent him a patent watch which Banneker found immensely fascinating. Benjamin went home and took the watch apart to “study its workings”. He immaculately drew each individual cog, then reassembled the watch and returned it, fully functioning, back to Levi. Still at only the age of 22, he carved similar watch pieces out of wood, enlarged and perfectly scaled, calculating the appropriate number of teeth and how each piece would interlock and pivot within the mechanism, to make a fully functioning wooden clock; the first in America. The clock was so precise that it struck every hour, on the hour for almost fifty years until his death. Having constructed the first clock made in America brought fame to young Banneker, propelling him to begin a watch and clock repair business alongside maintain the farm in order to bring more money into the household. It proved to be a successful business he would keep until his retirement.

BannekerBDM

After his, father’s death in 1759, Banneker was forced to reside with his mother and sisters, taking care of most of the manual labor. However, in 1771, the Ellicott family moved to the area and built mills nearby. Banneker, being a generous and curious man, supplied their workers with food in exchange for them granting him access to study the construction of the mills. The Ellicotts, being Quakers, accepted their warm welcome, and happened to share the same views on racial equality, so they treated Banneker and his family with all the respect they deserved. Having been taught in a Quaker school and familiar with Quaker values, Benjamin became fast friends with the family.

One day during the summer of 1788, George Ellicott, one of the famous Ellicott brothers, lent Benjamin Banneker books and equipment to begin a more formal study, and a western understanding of astronomy. The following year, having studied the texts vigorously, Banneker had sent George his work, which accurately calculated the upcoming solar eclipse, as well as other significant meteorological events. Many of these and other calculations came into his most successful accomplishment.

BannekerAlmanac

Banneker’s true acclaim came from his numerous almanacs which were second only to that of Poor Richard’s Almanac, by Benjamin Franklin. Because of his vast interest in astronomy and mathematical texts, and his friend’s generosity in lending the texts, he set about to correctly surmise that distant planets orbited stars other than our sun, without previous knowledge of this fact, which is incredibly remarkable considering he had only an eight-grade education. With all of his research and knowledge passed down from his grandfather, he published Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac, an annual calendar predicting the exact times of sunrise, sunset, moon phases, meteor showers, eclipses, tides, comets and  other meteorological phenomena; as well as non-astrological information like opinion pieces, essays, poetry and political commentary that supported  his argument for abolitionism. One edition of his almanac was prefaced by his editors with “Not you ye proud, impute to these the blame/ If Afric’s sons to genius are unknown/ For Banneker has prov’d they may acquire a name/ As bright, as lasting, as your own”, referring to how grand his intelligence was and how necessary abolition was for there was no way to know who amongst “Afric’s sons” were gifted. He also included his own personal pieces calling for the abolition of slavery and the desire for a Department of Peace to counter-balance the then newly established Department of War.

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But one of the most interesting articles present in his almanacs was copies of a series of letters. Benjamin Banneker was a proponent for equality through non-violence, and therefore, when he saw a problem, chooses to attack it through peaceful and logical reasoning. In 1791, Banneker exchanged letters with the soon-to-be president, Thomas Jefferson.  He respectfully argued that Jefferson’s statement that “blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind” was false and directly contradicted his own previous words in the Declaration of Independence; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. He also asks of Jefferson to recall the previous tyranny of the British and likens that same tyranny to the oppression of the African in America. Being the courteous and respectful person he was, Banneker offered Jefferson the ability to publically argue his opinion. Within the letters exchange, Banneker challenged Jefferson to a debate of racial equality and that he should free his slaves on moral grounds. Jefferson refused both invitations and refused to exchange another letter. So in retaliation, Banneker published the chain of letters in the next edition of his almanac and each one to come after.

This plan of the city of Washington, D.C., from 1791 shows Banneker's work as surveyor of our country's capital CREDIT: “Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia : ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America,” 1792(?). Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Call Number G3850 1792 .E41 Vault. br />

This plan of the city of Washington, D.C., from 1791 shows Banneker’s work as surveyor of our country’s capital
CREDIT: “Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia : ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America,” 1792(?). Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Call Number G3850 1792 .E41 Vault. br />