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


The facts behind Banneker’s Grandmother and how she came to America are a bit of a mystery. It is recorded that his Grandmother’s name was Molly Welsh, Walsh, or Welch, the most common being Welsh. Born around 1666, she is widely believed to have been an English dairy maid, falsely convicted of stealing bucket of milk and sent to the colonies to work as an indentured servant for a Maryland tobacco farmer. However, there are no records of her within the found servant and slave logs of the time. This does not discredit the possibility though, considering that the records were both poorly kept and preserved. But it is equally possible that she was a working class citizen who, in exchange for the trip there, hired herself out as an indentured servant to avoid debt. This is argued due to the death tolls at the time being around 40 for servant women, while she is recorded to have lived well into her 70’s.

Another topic of controversy is that she is accounted as having been a white woman, of which Banneker never mentioned throughout any of his works or friendships. Due to the discontinuing of the headright system, which let those who paid their way to the new world inherit 50 acres, Molly was no longer entitled to free land and had to pay for whatever land she wished to possess. After those initial seven years of servitude were up, she did just that, purchasing a farm along the Patapsco River just outside of Baltimore. After saving enough money, she purchased two slaves to help with the tremendous work of keeping up a farm, one of which was a man named Bana Ka. She eventually set both slaves free, and against the law of Maryland at the time that prohibited a white woman marrying a black man, she married Bana Ka. He is thought to have been the son of the chief or king of the Dogon Tribe in Mali, so when Americanizing, they both took the last name Bannaky derived from his original name.

They together had four daughters, Katherine, Esther, Jemima and Mary Bannaky. Mary, following in her mother’s footsteps, purchased a slave for the farm whom she also later married. His English name, Robert Bannaky, originally from Guinea, joined the family residence, again helping to tend the farm for the predominantly female family. However, on November 9th, 1731, they had a son, Benjamin Banneker, adding to the already burgeoning household.

As previously mentioned, his grandfather Bana Ka was thought to be from the Dogon tribe in Mali. Research was conducted during the 1930s, in which anthropologists worked extensively with the Dogon tribe. Despite the grand language barrier, they discovered that the Dogons had “their own systems of astronomy and calendric measurements, methods of calculation and extensive anatomical and physiological knowledge, as well as a systematic pharmacopoeia”(Griaule, pg XIV). This is taught to each member of the tribe, as the astrological aspects are a major part of their basic religion, so naturally Bana Ka must have also learned this vast knowledge.  He then, before his death, taught his wife Molly and their four daughters his belief system as well as his extensive understanding of the sciences, and they in turn passed these down to their children and grand-children. That initial knowledge is thought to be one of the major contributions and the base towards Benjamin’s familiarity with astronomy, not to mention his brilliance and innate curiosity.

Molly, following the teaching lead of her husband, taught her grand-children to read and write using the Bible, which is thought to be her only possession brought with her from England. Benjamin, being as brilliant as he was, picked up reading with innate alacrity; and then took it upon himself to read to his grandmother, mother, aunts and younger siblings. When he was finally old enough, and one eventually opened up within traveling distance of their farm, Benjamin attended a small Bi-racial Quaker school during the winter when not farming, and turned out to be a remarkably apt pupil, mastering the flute, the violin, and arithmetic by the age of fifteen. However, with his age and maturity, he was forced to leave after only an eighth-grade education to inherit the responsibility of maintaining the family farm. This proved to be a new wellspring of innovation for Benjamin, and he in turn invented a series of irrigation ditches and dams to control the water from nearby springs and funnel them appropriately throughout and into the farm. Known as “Bannaky Springs”, their tobacco flourished despite droughts prevalent amongst other farms in the area.