WHO WAS BENJAMIN BANNEKER?
Born on November 9, 1731 outside Baltimore, Maryland, Benjamin Banneker was an extraordinary, self-educated, free African American. His zest for knowledge led him to become an accomplished mathematician, astronomer, author of six published almanacs, abolitionist, and surveyor of our nation’s capital. When Banneker was not star gazing, you could find him maintaining his one hundred acre tobacco farm, orchard, and apiary. Today his property serves as the location of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, part of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.
Benjamin Banneker’s early education was provided by his grandmother Molly Welsh, an English dairy maid who was falsely accused of stealing milk. After demonstrating her ability to read during her trial, Molly was saved from the gallows and instead sentenced to seven years of indentured servitude in the thirteen colonies. From a young age Banneker demonstrated an aptitude for math and science. In his early twenties, Banneker borrowed a pocket watch and built a wooden clock that kept perfect time for the next fifty years.
In 1772, the Ellicotts, a Quaker family from Pennsylvania, migrated to Maryland and founded Ellicott Mills (now Ellicott City). Banneker befriended this family and eventually borrowed several tools and books on astronomy from them. Eventually, he mastered the science of the stars and calculated an ephemeris, a set of astronomical projections for his first almanac.
Impressed by his work, the Ellicotts invited Banneker to help survey the nation’s capital. Using the latitude and longitude derived from celestial observations, Banneker was able to lay the base points for the new established capital. Upon his return home, Banneker embarked upon his final project, writing a series of almanacs that not only included astronomical data but also proverbs, mathematical puzzles, and essays on the injustices of slavery. Banneker published six almanacs between 1792 and 1797. By 1797 his almanacs had become bestsellers. Almanacs, during the eighteenth century, were an important reference tool used by farmers and navigators. Their collection of astronomical and meteorological data including phases of the moon, sunrises, sunsets, and weather events made it easier for farmers to estimate planting and harvesting seasons and navigators to calculate their position on the sea.
Throughout his life, Banneker often questioned the "inhuman captivity" that many blacks were condemned to endure whilst in the chains of slavery. Motivated by his convictions, Banneker wrote a letter to Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson asking him to recognize the "unjustifiable cruelty" that slavery presented and to use his position to seek freedom for those in bondage. Enclosed with his letter, Banneker submitted a manuscript copy of his upcoming 1792 almanac. Jefferson acknowledged Banneker’s plea for liberty and forwarded his almanac to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, France, much to the delight of Banneker.
Banneker died in 1806 at the age of 74. He never married nor had children. Following his death, Banneker’s reputation as an intellectual man and a respected astronomer and mathematician was solidified by his outstanding accomplishments. For over two centuries, his legacy has inspired many generations to quench their thirst for knowledge and realize their own potential to make a difference.