African-American naturalist, mathematician, astronomer and almanac author
by Dale Ricardo Shields
Born: November 9, 1731, Baltimore County, MD
Died: October 9, 1806, Oella, Catonsville, MD
Robert Banneker (father)
Mary Banneky (mother)
“Our nation’s capital would not be the same if it wasn’t for Benjamin Banneker, the Black architect hired by George Washington, the first President of the United States, to design the city of Washington, DC. It was actually Thomas Jefferson himself who highly recommended that Banneker be placed on the planning committee.“
“Without Benjamin Banneker, our nation’s capital would not exist as we know it. After a year of work, the Frenchman hired by George Washington to design the capital, L’Enfant, stormed off the job, taking all the plans. Banneker, placed on the planning committee at Thomas Jefferson’s request, saved the project by reproducing from memory, in two days, a complete layout of the streets, parks, and major buildings. Thus Washington, D.C. itself can be considered a monument to the genius of this great man.
Banneker’s English grandmother immigrated to the Baltimore area and married one of her slaves, named Bannaky. Later, their daughter did likewise and gave birth to Benjamin in 1731. Since by law, free/slave status depended on the mother, Banneker, like his mother, was- ‘technically’ free.
Banneker attended an elementary school run by Quakers (one of the few “color-blind” communities of that time); in fact, he later adopted many Quaker habits and ideas. As a young man, he was given a pocket watch by a business associate: this inspired Banneker to create his own clock, made entirely of wood (1753). Famous as the first clock built in the New World, it kept perfect time for forty years.
During the Revolutionary War, wheat grown on a farm designed by Banneker helped save the fledgling U.S. troops from starving. After the War, Banneker took up astronomy: in 1789, he successfully predicted an eclipse. From 1792 to 1802, Banneker published an annual Farmer’s Almanac, for which he did all the calculations himself.
The Almanac won Banneker fame as far away as England and France. He used his reputation to promote social change: namely, to eliminate racism and war. He sent a copy of his first Almanac to Thomas Jefferson, with a letter protesting that the man who declared that “all men are created equal” owned slaves. Jefferson responded with enthusiastic words, but no political reform. Similarly, Banneker’s attempts “to inspire a veneration for human life and a horror for war” fell mainly on deaf ears.
But Banneker’s reputation was never in doubt. He spent his last years as an internationally known polymath: farmer, engineer, surveyor, city planner, astronomer, mathematician, inventor, author, and social critic. He died on October 25, 1806. Today, Banneker does not have the reputation he should, although the entire world could still learn from his words: “Ah, why will men forget that they are brethren?”
Banneker’s life is inspirational. Despite the popular prejudices of his times, the man was quite unwilling to let his race or his age hinder in any way his thirst for intellectual development.
Described as the first African-American man of science, Banneker was born in 1731 in Ellicott’s Mills, Md. His maternal grandmother was a white Englishwoman who came to this country, bought two slaves, and then liberated and married one of them; their daughter, who also married a slave, was Banneker’s mother.
From the beginning, Banneker, who was taught reading and religion by his grandmother and who attended one of the first integrated schools, showed a great propensity for mathematics and an astounding mechanical ability. Later, when he was forced to leave school to work the family farm, he continued to be an avid reader.
Although he had no previous training when he was only 22 he invented a wooden clock that kept accurate time throughout his life.
“Banneker applied his natural mechanical and mathematical abilities to diagrams of wheels and gears, and converted these into three-dimensional wooden clock parts he carved with a knife.” People from all over came to see the clock.
In 1773 he began making astronomical calculations for almanacs, and in the spring of 1789 he accurately predicted a solar eclipse; that same year, he was the first African-American appointed to the President’s Capital Commission.
He never married and is not known to have had any liaisons with women. In one of his early essays, he stated that poverty, disease, and violence are more tolerable than the “pungent stings … which guilty passions dart into the heart,” causing some historians to assume he was most probably homosexual. According to “Gay & Lesbian Biography,” Banneker’s “self-isolation and love of drink are sometimes cited as at least a partial explanation for his lifelong bachelorhood. But his grandmother, parents, and sisters were known to be people of considerable Christian dominance, and he always lived under their supervision so the assumption he was gay may have been just that, speculation and assumption.”
A self-taught surveyor, in 1789 he was called on to assist George Ellicott and Pierre Charles L’Enfant in laying out what would become the nation’s capital.
In 1790, he sold his farm and spent the rest of his life publishing his works on astronomy, mathematics, and the abolition of slavery. At the end of 1791, Banneker was publishing his almanac, greatly admired by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; the almanac was sent to Paris for inclusion at the Academy of Sciences. Once the almanac’s publication was assured, Banneker, having previously corresponded with Jefferson on the intellectual quality of African-Americans, began a correspondence with him on the subject of the abolition of slavery.
Toward the end of his life, he produced a dissertation on bees, a study of locust-plague cycles, and more letters on segregationist trends in America. He died at age 75 in Boston in 1806.
In 1980, the U.S. Post Office issued a Black Heritage commemorative stamp in his honor.”
Born on November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland, Banneker was an African-American almanac author, surveyor, naturalist, inventor, mathematician, and farmer.
“Around 1753, at about the age of 21, Banneker reportedly completed a wooden clock that struck on the hour. He appears to have modelled his clock from a borrowed pocket watch by carving each piece to scale. The clock continued to work until his death.
After his father died in 1759, Banneker lived with his mother and sisters. In 1768, he signed a Baltimore County petition to move the county seat from Joppa to Baltimore. An entry for his property in a 1773 Baltimore County tax list identified Banneker as the only adult member of his household.
Total solar eclipse (1999)
In 1772, brothers Andrew Ellicott, John Ellicott and Joseph Ellicott moved from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and bought land along the Patapsco Falls near Banneker’s farm on which to construct gristmills, around which the village of Ellicott’s Mills (now Ellicott City) subsequently developed. The Ellicotts were Quakers who held the same views on racial equality as did many of their faith. Banneker studied the mills and became acquainted with their proprietors.
In 1788, George Ellicott, a son of Andrew Ellicott, loaned Banneker books and equipment to begin a more formal study of astronomy. During the following year, Banneker sent George his work calculating a solar eclipse.
In 1790, Banneker prepared an ephemeris for 1791, which he hoped would be placed within a published almanac. However, he was unable to find a printer that was willing to publish and distribute the work.”
Interesting Facts about Benjamin Banneker
Born November 9, 1731, in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland.
He had a grandmother named Molly Welsh, who was an English indentured servant.
He had a grandfather who was originally a slave of Molly Welsh, but whom she freed and then married.
He had a mother named Mary and 3 sisters
He had a father who was an African native and a Grandfather who was thought to be the son of an African King.
He wrote a dissertation on bees.
He designed and constructed what was the first wooden clock made entirely in America.
He attended a Quaker school in Maryland with European American and African American children.
He farmed land ten miles outside Baltimore where he spent more than 85% of his life (Near what is now Ellicott).
He washed his own clothes, cooked his own meals, and cultivated gardens around his cabin.
He was a “confirmed bachelor” who studied all night, slept all morning, worked all afternoon
and wrapped himself in a great cloak at night, lay under a pear tree, and meditated on the revolutions of the heavenly bodies.
He always had standing, in the middle of his cabin, a large table covered with books and papers
and played the violin and the flute and was quite accomplished at both.
He was constantly in correspondence with other mathematicians in the United States, exchanging questions and seeking solutions.
From 1792 to 1802, wrote a series of annual almanacs that were widely read
and was named to the commission that surveyed the land upon which Washington, D.C., was built.
He proposed that the cabinet have a Secretary of Peace as well as a Secretary of War
and worked for free public education and an end to capital punishment.
He died on October 9, 1806, in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland
“When Benjamin Banneker died 215 years ago, the first photograph was still 20 years away from being taken. There are no known paintings or drawings of Benjamin Banneker, and since all of his worldly possessions were destroyed in a fire on the day of his funeral, nobody knows if Banneker ever even owned a portrait or drawing of himself. It is widely assumed by many that the image on Banneker’s almanac in 1795 was of Benjamin Banneker himself but that has never been confirmed. As a result, all of the images available today of Banneker are purely speculation and nobody knows for certain what the man actually looked like. Also, nobody seems to have an answer as to why his name was spelled Bannaker on this 1795 almanac but Banneker on other previous years and everywhere else. So many mysteries and so much remains unknown about the life of Banneker.
What we do know about Benjamin Banneker is amazing though and his story is truly inspirational. Banneker’s life was a never-ending quest for knowledge right up until the time of his death. The series of yearly almanacs he authored and was able to have published late in his life are some of the only remaining pieces of his work. His almanacs were an amazing achievement though, especially when you consider the time period he lived in and the challenges he faced. Not only was he America’s first African American Scientist and Inventor, but he was also the first to publish a scientific journal and by publishing the letters he wrote to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson’s response in his best selling almanac he was a forefather in the movement for civil rights and racial equality. Benjamin Banneker openly dreamed of a country with no slavery well before that dream would ever become a reality. Much can be learned from the life of Banneker but yet so much is still left to be learned about the life of Banneker.” –
By the age of 15, Benjamin Banneker had taken over his family farm and devised his own system of irrigation to help his crop flourish. Furthermore, he was a scientist and a writer. His almanac was compared to that of the great Benjamin Franklin.
It contained everything from medicinal recipes to astronomical info, which demonstrated his great breadth of knowledge. Benjamin Banneker is a major historical figure whose actions countered the strong American historical Sambo stereotype. Benjamin Banneker had a very different life than most African Americans of his time. His grandmother, Molly Walsh, was an English woman who had emigrated from England to the colony of Maryland for a better life. She worked as an indentured servant whose bondage was supposed to last only 7 years. At the end of her bondage, she bought a farm and two slaves of her own. She settled down a mile from the current Ellicott City and near the Patapsco River to begin a life for herself. Eventually, she set her own slaves free. One of the slaves, Banna Ka, fell in love with her and they married shortly after he gained his freedom. He changed his name to Bannaky and the two of them had a daughter named Mary Bannaky and three other children. In her own turn, Mary Bannaky inherited the family farm, buying her own slave as she did so. This slave, Robert, was an African American slave who originated from Guinea. Like her mother before her, Mary Bannaky fell in love, set Robert free, and married him.
During this time, they altered their name to Banneker. The two of them lived on her family farm and on November 9, 1731, had a son whom they named Benjamin. Mary Banneker also gave birth to three daughters as well. Since both his parents were free, Benjamin Banneker and his sisters were born as free African Americans, which gave them a unique status as they grew up. Benjamin Banneker demonstrated his unique intellectual abilities even as a young boy. As he grew up, he attended a nearby Quaker School. Also known as, the Religious Society of Friends, the mantra of this group was to demonstrate the purity and light of God using the Bible. To the Quakers, Jesus Christ had a direct relationship with every person. The idea of universality between all of God’s children struck close to home for the African American Benjamin Banneker and his darker-colored skin. As a boy, he learned alongside many different children of his own age. He quickly learned how the play the flute and the violin and rapidly picked up the basics of arithmetic. During this time, the Quakers also taught him how to read and write which would become one of his biggest assets as time progressed.
By the age of 15, Benjamin Banneker learned enough and took control of his family’s farm. He devised his own system of irrigation for the crops using the river than ran by his property. By diverting some of the water into his fields using ditches and dams, his tobacco flourished even during times of droughts. As a young boy, Benjamin Banneker learned quickly and applied his learning to the world around him.
One day, the 22-year-old Benjamin Banneker met a man named Josef Levi. An ordinary man, Josef Levi became one of the most influential people in Benjamin Banneker’s life. He did all this simply by owning a pocket watch. When Benjamin Banneker saw this watch, he became fascinated. Josef saw this fascination and gave the watch to Banneker as a gift. Over the next few days, Banneker took apart the watch and put it back together again many times. He analyzed, compared, and measured the relationships of each gear to the next, and how each gear worked together. He built replica after replica and tested different measurements of different gears. With the help of Joseph Ellicott, they made one of the world’s most precise clocks of their time out of wood. This clock was so accurate, that it would tell the exact time for more than 40 years. To this day, this clock is one of Benjamin Banneker’s most well-known inventions.
Unfortunately, the fire that would burn down Benjamin Banneker’s house after his death, would also destroy this precise clock. Similar to Josef Levi, Joseph Ellicott changed Benjamin Banneker’s life. Joseph Ellicott was one of three brothers: John, Andrew, and Joseph. These three brothers revolutionized farming with two simple ideas: using wheat instead of tobacco and using fertilizer to revitalize overworked soil. Changing the crops to wheat not only varied what was grown in the soil but also expanded the market. As many farmers can contest, planting the same crops in the same soil wears out the nutrients and quickly produces unhealthy crops. By adding fertilizer to the soil, the nutrients are restored and the crops flourish. Joseph Ellicott himself was not only known for his ideas for farming but was also an industrialist, amateur mathematician, and astronomer. Seeing as he and Benjamin Banneker had many similar interests, the two of them started a small watch and clock repair business. As the two quickly became close friends, Joseph Ellicott lent many of his books of astronomy and arithmetic to Banneker for him to read. Banneker quickly taught himself the knowledge these books contained and they became the basis of his self-taught academic knowledge. In 1791, Benjamin Banneker worked with Major Andrew Ellicott, another one of the previously mentioned Ellicott brothers, to help survey a ten-mile square of land in what is now Washington. However, there are many conflicting reports about the final role that he played in designing the layout of the city. Some writers have stated that Banneker was simply a stable hand while others describe him as a woodcutter. Yet others state that he had full responsibility to survey the ten-mile square of land while others claim he designed the entire layout of the upcoming city. Whatever the final report, he claims at least a small part in the creation of the layout of Washington DC during this time. Also in 1791,
Benjamin Banneker wrote his own almanac: Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris. He published it six times annually from 1791 to 1802. He stopped, eventually, because of poor sales. This almanac is commonly compared to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Where Benjamin Franklin used his almanac to publish calendars, poems, weather forecasts, and astronomical information, Banneker’s almanac contained medicinal recipes, astronomical information, eclipse predictions, and listed tides. Banneker also included in his almanac other personal information. Being one who studied the world around him, he used his almanac to publish his findings. He published his mathematical findings concerning the 17-year cycle of locusts and even a treatise on bees. At times, Banneker’s almanac came under attack by those who read it. For instance, Banneker predicted a solar eclipse to occur on April 14, 1789.
This prediction was very controversial due to the fact that many known astronomers of the time disagreed with his statement. However, on the night of April 14, Benjamin Banneker was proven correct. In general, Banneker’s almanac was the medium in which he published the results of his studies. However, Benjamin Banneker also used his almanac to promote his stance on African American rights. He blatantly states: “The color of the skin is in no way connected with strength of the mind or intellectual powers.” He even promotes the dark color of his skin by saying, “I am of the African race, and in the color which is natural to them of the deepest dye; and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.” No longer should African Americans be ashamed of the color of their skin, but they should wear it with pride and gratitude to God. Known as an abolitionist, one who supports the ending of slavery, Benjamin Banneker used his almanac to not only publish his academic findings but to express his views on African American rights. In 1792, Thomas Jefferson received a very important letter. One of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He was not only the 3rd president of the United States, but he also served as the Vice President under John Adams and served in the Continental Congress representing the state of Virginia.
However, it was not due to this that Thomas Jefferson received his special letter. It was because he was a slave owner and a white supremacist. In 1807, he signed a bill that banned the importation of slaves and he publicly pronounced African Americans mathematically inferior to whites in his Notes on the State of Virginia. This was a book written by Thomas Jefferson in 1785 in response to questions asked about the state of Virginia by François Barbé-Marbois, the Secretary of the French delegation. In response to this, on August 19, 1791, Benjamin Banneker, “having taken up my pen in order to direct to you as a present, a copy of an Almanack…I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led” to send a 12-page letter to Thomas Jefferson along with a copy of his almanac. In this letter, he spoke against Thomas Jefferson’s idea of African Americans as inferior. He states, it is “the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature…[to] readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.” He furthermore describes African Americans as in a “state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed.” He calls for action but Thomas Jefferson does not change his views until many years later when he would publicly declare his new stance on African Americans. On October 9, 1806, at the age of 74, Benjamin Banneker died a natural death. After a day of walking through his property, Banneker felt ill and went home to rest, and ultimately to die.
To this day, statues and monuments all throughout Washington DC and Baltimore remind us of this great African American scientist and abolitionist. Two of the most notable memorials at the Mount Gilboa Church in Baltimore County, Maryland, and in the heart of the DC city. History knows Benjamin Banneker for all of his academic contributions: he was self-taught, mastered mathematics at a very young age with astronomy close behind, created his own system of irrigation for his crops at 15 years of age, and he expressed his mathematical and astrological findings in a written almanac where he also expressed his abolitionist ideas. Additionally, Benjamin Banneker had a unique advantage over many of his African American counterparts: he was born free, owned land, and was never anybody’s slave. However, what makes Benjamin Banneker such an important figure in history is not only his academic contributions to the world but that his very actions countered the caricature of Sambo. The image of Sambo depicts a carefree, irresponsible African American man. He is known for his childlike laughter. He is the image of entertainment: a laughing, singing, and dancing man. He was not only childlike in his immaturity; he also lacked wit and needed strict instruction from his white master. This illustration commonly appeared in marketing throughout the North and South in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. The icon added to the white prejudices that African Americans were inferior and needed someone to control them. To counter this image,
Many historians believe Benjamin Banneker was gay. Predictably, there is no definite proof of that. This was a time when Banneker was fighting to prove that Blacks are physically and mentally equal to whites and a time when homosexuals were considered mentally incapacitated.
“Poverty, disease, and violence are more tolerable than the pungent stings … which guilty passions dart into the heart,” he wrote in one of his essays.
Many have listed him as gay in various biographies and articles, including Aslan Brooke in A Few Black Gay or Bisexual Men and Women Who Changed the World.
The speculations were based on the fact that he never married and lived an isolated life, as well as the various essays that Banneker wrote. He was a deeply religious man and read the Bible daily, which may have also quashed any gay tendencies that he might have had.
Benjamin Banneker spent his last years doing what he loved the most: reading, writing, and fighting to refute that blacks are an inferior race. The entire world could still learn from his words:
“Ah, why will men forget that they are brethren?”
Benjamin Banneker was a down-to-earth, intelligent, writer who was largely left alone, an inventor of timekeeping, and a man who was mature, becoming and presented himself with stately conduct while in conversation. This intellect was not only self-taught, but he was completely against the stereotypes of his time. He countered every argument with knowledge and confidence and held himself high when those around him tried to tear him down. Benjamin Banneker is a man who is too often overlooked in history. When researched, he is only known for his academics. While these are important, it is also integral to look at the way his life countered the absurd caricatures of the White supremacists. While segregation is less blatant in the United States today, it is still present. Therefore, it is up to the people of America to imitate the great Benjamin Banneker and publicly declare their point of view, complete with information to back up their claims. Benjamin Banneker is not only a model for African Americans to counter the oppression of race against them, but he is a model for the whole world: a man who learned as much as he could about the world around him no matter the odds against him.
“His fight against racism
During his life, Banneker was able to use his reputation to promote social change for issues like racism, slavery, and war.
For nearly 10 years, he published an annual Farmer’s Almanac, for which he did all the calculations himself. He once sent a copy of one of his Almanacs to Thomas Jefferson with a letter protesting that the man who declared that “all men are created equal” actually owned slaves himself. Jefferson reportedly responded favorably to his letter, but no political reform was ever taken.
His Almanac, however, won him fame all over the world.
Sadly, Banneker died on October 25, 1806, but his life was very inspirational. He will always be remembered for his many accomplishments, but especially his contributions to the development of the city of Washington, DC.”
Louise Stubbs, Leon Pinkney, Jay Barney, Haywood Hale Brown
Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, Baltimore County, Maryland
Photograph of Benjamin Banneker Park in Washington, D.C. The National Park Service’s historical marker is near the photograph’s right edge.
Bibliography “Benjamin Banneker.” 2013. The Biography Channel website. Feb 01 2013, http://www.biography.com/people/benjamin-banneker-9198038. “Benjamin Banneker: Mathematician, Astronomer.” Web. 25 Jan. 2013. https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/banneker.html “Benjamin Banneker.” Welcome to Baltimore Hon RSS. N.p., 01 Feb. 2013. Web. 01 Feb. 2013. Benjamin Banneker, the Negro Mathematician and Astronomer Henry E. Baker The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1918), pp. 99-118 Benjamin Banneker: America’s First Black Astronomer The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 12 (Summer, 1996), p. 39 Gordon-Reed, Annette. “Blacks and the Founding Father.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2013.http://inventors.about.com/od/photogallery/ig/Benjamin-Banneker—Pictures-/Man-of-Signs.htm Henry E. Baker. “Benjamin Banneker, the Negro Mathematician, and Astronomer.” Journal of Negro History 3 (April 1918): 99-118. Seats, Peggy. “Benjamin Banneker: The Sneaky Preview of the Banneker Memorial Prototype.” Old Settlers Reunion. 26 Jan. 2013. http://www.oldsettlersreunion.com/Banneker.htm The Life of Benjamin Banneker by Silvio A. Bedini Review by Walter Fisher The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Nov. 1972), pp. 645-647
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