Benjamin Banneker (Nov. 9, 1731-Oct. 9, 1806) was a famous mathematician, inventor, and abolitionist in the early days of the U.S. He was born to a family of mixed race. His grandmother, Molly Wash, was an English woman and a former indentured servant. Banneker’s grandfather was a former enslaved west African royal named Banneka. The two violated Maryland law and got married despite the social taboo and stigma of interracial marriage. Banneker’s mother, Mary, was of mixed race and she went on to marry a newly free Black man named Robert, who took Banneker as his surname upon their marriage according toPBA.
Banneker was taught to read by his maternal grandmother, and for a very short time attended a small Quaker school. His grandmother, Molly, served as his primary educator, and taught him how to read. She also sparked his interest in math and science.
At 22, Banneker took one look at a functioning pocket watch and created a striking clock from wood. The clock was so well crafted that it ran up to 50 years without a power source. Many historians believed that Banneker’s clock is the first one made entirely in the USA.
His Relationship with the Ellicots
The Ellicots were a group of business owners that built gristmills in the 1770s around Maryland. Banneker was befriended by the family and the relationship had a great impact on his life. In 1788, Banneker used books and tools from the family to accurately predict the time of a solar eclipse. This event made him famous and brought him some local fame.
The First Black Government Employee
His relationship with the Ellicots became even more beneficial to cementing his legacy when he was selected to survey the new federal city that would become Washington D.C. In 1791, Andrew Ellicot recruited Banneker to help with this task. At the time, there was an uproar about having a Black man do this. According to the Georgetown Weekly Ledger, Ellicott was “attended by Benjamin Banneker, an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson’s concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation.”
Banneker and Jefferson
Considered a founding father of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was famously known for espousing freedom and equality for mankind. Jefferson wrote many articles questioning slavery and introduced a bill to prohibit future importation of Africans into Virginia. But despite Jefferson’s misgivings about the slave trade, he continued to believe in the moral and social superiority of whites over Blacks. In fact, he personally owned and sold upwards of 700 slaves. Banneker knew this, and in an Aug. 19, 1791, penned a letter to the then Secretary of State denouncing Jefferson’s hypocrisy about freedom for all men.
In a 1791 response letter held by the Library of Congress, Jefferson would say “no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition” of Blacks “to what it ought to be.”
So Jefferson recommended Banneker for employment as an assistant surveyor of the new federal district. He praised Banneker to people like Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), secretary of the Royal Academy of Science. However, later on in life, Jefferson recanted his praise Banneker and ceased his efforts at ending slavery.
From 1792-97, Banneker wrote and published a farmer’s almanac that would serve as his platform on the abolition of slavery and provide many of his mathematical and scientific achievements for the public. He calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust and also published information on bees.
The End of His Life
Banneker lived to be 75. He was never married or had children. By the end of his life, he was financially destitute and unable to bring in a steady income, so he sold parts of his farm and continued his scientific research. Banneker published six almanacs in 28 editions, leaving behind a legacy of Black excellence.
source: atlantablackstar.com by