Black History Series | Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker, free Black, farmer, mathematician, and astronomer, was born on November 9, 1731, the son of freed slaves, Robert and Mary Bannaky, probably near the Patapsco River, southeast of Baltimore, Maryland, where his father owned a small farm. For some years, Benjamin seems to have served as an indentured laborer on the plantation of Mary Welsh, who had dealings with the Bannaky family and in 1773, executed her dead husband’s instructions to release several of her labor force including “Negro Ben, born free age 43.” She also left Benjamin a substantial legacy. He lived alone as a tobacco farmer near the Patapsco River.
By tradition, Banneker received only a brief education from a Quaker schoolmaster. But he showed an early talent for mathematics and construction, when at the age of 21, he built a model of a striking clock, largely out of wood, that became renowned in his neighborhood. He read widely and recorded his researches. His skills drew him into contact with a wealthy white family, the Ellicotts, who had established flour mills and an iron foundry on the outskirts of Baltimore in the mid-1770’s.
In 1788, George Ellicott, a keen amateur astronomer, lent Banneker books and instruments that enabled him to construct tables predicting the positions of the stars and future solar and lunar eclipses. Three years later, Andrew Ellicott hired Banneker to assist him in surveying the boundaries of the ten-mile square site of the future Federal capital of Washington, D.C. In that year, too, Banneker won the backing of several Philadelphia supporters of the anti-slavery cause to print his work in the popular form of an almanac. Its 1792 publication, introduced by letters showing how Banneker’s accomplishments disproved the myth of Negro inferiority, was a considerable success and produced twenty-seven further editions of “Banneker’s Almanac” over the next five years. Banneker, sent a manuscript copy of his work to Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, along with a plea against the continuance of Black slavery and received a courteous, if evasive reply. But Jefferson praised Banneker as “a very respectable mathematician” in forwarding the manuscript to the notice of the French Academy of Sciences.
Banneker continued to live on his farm, in declining health, and died on October 9, 1806. Only fragments of his later writings survive, as most perished in a fire after his death. His achievements ranked him among other American scientists of the time, but his accomplishments were more remarkable because they were the product of patient, life-long self-education, emerging out of humble origins.