Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland to his mother Mary, a free black, and his father Robert, a freed slave from Guinea. There are two conflicting accounts of Banneker's family history. Banneker described himself as having only African ancestry. None of Banneker's surviving papers describe a white ancestor or identify the name of his grandmother. However, some biographers contend that Banneker's mother was the child of Molly Welsh, a white indentured servant, and an African slave named Banneka. The first published description of Molly Welsh was based on interviews with her descendants that took place after 1836, long after the deaths of both Molly and Benjamin.
Molly may have purchased Banneka to help establish a farm located near what eventually became Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, west of Baltimore. One biographer has suggested that Banneka may have been a member of the Dogon tribe that were reported to have knowledge of astronomy. Molly supposedly freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her. Although born after Banneka's death, Benjamin may have acquired some knowledge of astronomy from Molly.
Banneker was named on the deed of his family's 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm in 1737, when he was six years old. He lived on the farm for nearly all of his life.
As a young teenager, Banneker met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker who established a school near the Banneker farm. Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and advocates of racial equality. Heinrichs shared his personal library and provided Banneker with his only classroom instruction. Banneker's formal education ended when he was old enough to help on his family's farm.
In 1753 at the age of 22, Banneker completed a wooden clock that struck on the hour. He appears to have modeled his clock from a borrowed pocket watch by carving each piece to scale. The clock continued to work until Banneker's death.
After his father died in 1759, Banneker lived with his mother and sisters. In 1771, the Ellicott family moved to the area and built mills along the Patapsco River. Banneker supplied their workers with food and studied the mills. The Ellicotts were Quakers and shared the same views on racial equality as did many of their faith. George Ellicott lent Benjamin Banneker books and equipment to begin a more formal study of astronomy in 1788. The following year, Banneker sent George his work calculating a solar eclipse.
In February 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott, a member of the same family, hired Banneker to assist in the initial survey of the boundaries of the new federal district, which the 1790 federal Residence Act and later legislation authorized. Formed from land along the Potomac River that the states of Maryland and Virginia ceded to the federal government of the United States in accordance with the Residence Act, the territory that became the original District of Columbia was a square measuring 10 miles (16 km) on each side, totaling 100 square miles (260 km2). Ellicott's team placed boundary stones at every mile point along the borders of the new capital territory.
Banneker's duties on the survey consisted primarily of making astronomical observations at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, to ascertain the location of the starting point for the survey. He also maintained a clock that he used to relate points on the ground to the positions of stars at specific times. However, at age 59, Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791 due to illness and difficulties completing the survey. He returned to his home at Ellicott's Mills to work on an ephemeris. Andrew Ellicott continued the survey with his brothers Benjamin and Joseph Ellicott and other assistants through 1791 and 1792.
Title page of an edition of Banneker's 1792 almanac.
At Ellicott's Mills, Banneker made astronomical calculations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses for inclusion in his ephemeris. He placed the ephemeris and its subsequent revisions in a number of editions in a six-year series of almanacs which were printed and sold in six cities in four states for the years 1792 through 1797: Baltimore; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia. He also kept a series of journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations and his diary. The journals, only one of which survived a fire on the day of his funeral, additionally contained a number of mathematical calculations and puzzles.
The title page of an edition of Banneker's 1792 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris stated that the publication contained:
the Motions of the Sun and Moon, the True Places and Aspects of the Planets, the Rising and Setting of the Sun, Place and Age of the Moon, &c.—The Lunations, Conjunctions, Eclipses, Judgment of the Weather, Festivals, and other remarkable Days; Days for holding the Supreme and Circuit Courts of the United States, as also the useful Courts in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Also—several useful Tables, and valuable Receipts.—Various Selections from the Commonplace–Book of the Kentucky Philosopher, an American Sage; with interesting and entertaining Essays, in Prose and Verse—the whole comprising a greater, more pleasing, and useful Variety than any Work of the Kind and Price in North America.
In addition to the information that its title page described, the almanac contained a tide table for the Chesapeake Bay region. That edition and others listed times for high water or high tide at Cape Charles and Point Lookout, Virginia and Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland.
Woodcut portrait of Benjamin Bannaker (Banneker) in title page of a Baltimore edition of his 1795 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac
In his 1793 almanac, Banneker included letters sent between Thomas Jefferson and himself. The title page of a Baltimore edition of his 1795 almanac had a woodcut portrait of him as he may have appeared, but which a writer later concluded was more likely a portrayal of an idealized African American youth.
The almanacs' editors prefaced the publications with adulatory references to Banneker and his race. The 1792 and 1793 almanacs contained lengthy commendations that James McHenry, a signer of the United States Constitution and self-described friend of Banneker, had written in 1791. A 1796 edition stated:
Not you ye proud, impute to these the blame If Afric's sons to genius are unknown, For Banneker has prov'd they may acquire a name, As bright, as lasting, as your own.
Supported by Andrew, George and Elias Ellicott and heavily promoted by the Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery of Maryland and of Pennsylvania, the early editions of the almanacs achieved commercial success. After these editions were published, William Wilberforce and other prominent abolitionists praised Banneker and his works in the House of Commons of Great Britain.
Banneker expressed his views on slavery and racial equality in a letter to Thomas Jefferson and in other documents that he placed within his 1793 almanac. The almanac contained copies of his correspondence with Jefferson, poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and by the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, and anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America.
Banneker's 1793 almanac also contained a copy of "A Plan of Peace-office for the United States" that Benjamin Rush had authored. The Plan proposed the appointment of a "Secretary of Peace" and described the Secretary's powers. The Plan stated:
1. Let a Secretary of Peace be appointed to preside in this office; ...; let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian ....
2. Let a power be given to the Secretary to establish and maintain free schools in every city, village and township in the United States; ... Let the youth of our country be instructed in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and in the doctrines of a religion of some kind; the Christian religion should be preferred to all others; for it belongs to this religion exclusively to teach us not only to cultivate peace with all men, but to forgive—nay more, to love our very enemies....
3. Let every family be furnished at public expense, by the Secretary of this office, with an American edition of the Bible....
4. Let the following sentence be inscribed in letters of gold over the door of every home in the United States: The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men's Lives, But To Save Them.
On August 19, 1791, after departing the federal capital area, Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 had drafted the United States Declaration of Independence and in 1791 was serving as the United States Secretary of State. Quoting language in the Declaration, the letter expressed a plea for justice for African Americans. To further support this plea, Banneker included within the letter a handwritten manuscript of an almanac for 1792 containing his ephemeris with his astronomical calculations.
In the letter, Banneker accused Jefferson of criminally using fraud and violence to oppress his slaves by stating:
…Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.
The letter ended:
And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect, Your most obedient humble servant, BENJAMIN BANNEKER.
An English abolitionist, Thomas Day, had earlier written in a 1776 letter:
If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.
Thomas Jefferson's own actions and statements on slavery and on the treatment of slaves were ambiguous and paradoxical (see: Thomas Jefferson and slavery). He reportedly instructed overseers at his home at Monticello to not whip his slaves, but the overseers often ignored his wishes during his frequent absences. A researcher has found no reliable document that portrays Jefferson in the act of applying physical correction.
Without directly responding to Banneker's accusation, Jefferson replied to Banneker's letter in a series of nuanced statements that expressed his interest in the advancement of the equality of America's black population. Jefferson's reply stated:
Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791. Sir, I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson
Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker's almanac, was a noted French mathematician and abolitionist. It appears that the Academy of Sciences itself did not receive the almanac.
When writing his letter, Banneker informed Jefferson that his 1791 work with Andrew Ellicott on the District boundary survey had affected his work on his 1792 ephemeris and almanac by stating:
.... And although I had almost declined to make my calculation for the ensuing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefor, being taken up at the Federal Territory, by the request of Mr. Andrew Ellicott, ....
On the same day that he replied to Banneker (August 30, 1791), Jefferson sent a letter to the Marquis de Condorcet that contained the following paragraph relating to Banneker's race, abilities, almanac and work with Andrew Ellicott:
I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I promised him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, & in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an almanac for the next year, which he sent to me in his own handwriting, & which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. add to this that he is a very respectable member of society. he is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talent observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.
In 1809, three years after Banneker's death, Jefferson expressed a different opinion of Banneker in a letter to Joel Barlow that criticized a "diatribe" that a French abolitionist, Henri Grégoire, had written in 1808:
The whole do not amount, in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.
A substantial mythology exaggerating Benjamin Banneker's accomplishments has developed during the two centuries that have elapsed since he lived. Several such urban legends describe Banneker's alleged activities in the Washington, D.C. area around the time that he assisted Andrew Ellicott in the federal district boundary survey. Others involve his clock, his almanacs and his journals. All lack support by historical evidence. Some are contradicted by such evidence.
A United States postage stamp and the names of a number of recreational and cultural facilities, schools, streets and other facilities and institutions throughout the United States have commemorated Banneker's documented and mythical accomplishments throughout the years since he lived.
^ abcNational Capital Planning Commission (1976). Boundary markers of the Nation's Capital: a proposal for their preservation & protection : a National Capital Planning Commission Bicentennial report. Washington, D.C.: National Capital Planning Commission; For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office.
^(1) Steiner, Bernard C. (1907). "VII. Member of the House of Delegates". The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry. Cleveland: The Brown Brothers Company. p. 127. "I consider this negro as a fresh proof that the powers of the mind are disconnected with the color of the skin, or, in other words, a striking contradiction to Mr. Hume's doctrine, that 'the negroes are naturally inferior to whites, and unsusceptible of attainments in the arts and sciences.' In every civilized country, we shall find thousands of whites liberally educated and who have enjoyed greater opportunities for instruction than this negro, his inferiors in those intellectual acquirements and capacities that form the most characteristic features in the human race. But the system that would assign to these degraded blacks an origin different from the white, if it is not ready to be described by philosophers, must be relinquished as similar instances multiply; and that such must frequently happen, cannot well be doubted, should no check impede the progress of humanity, which meliorating the conditions of slavery, necessarily leads to its final extinction. Let, however, the issue be what it will, I cannot but wish on this occasion to see the public patronage keep pace with my black friend's merit." (2) Phillips, pp. 115-116 (3) "James McHenry, Maryland". Singers of the Constitution: Biographical Sketches. National Park Service. 2004-07-29. Retrieved 2011-11-27.
^Gregoire, H. (1808). "Bannaker". De la littérature des nègres, ou Recherches sur leurs facultés intellectuelles, leurs qualités morales et leur littérature, suivies de Notices sur la vie et les ouvrages des Nègres qui se sont distingués dans les Sciences, les Lettres et les Arts. Paris, France: Chez Maradan, Libraire. pp. 211–212. English translation: Gregoire, H., translated by D.B. Warden (1810). "Bannaker". An enquiry concerning the intellectual and moral faculties, and literature of negroes; followed with an account of the life and works of fifteen negroes & mulattoes, distinguished in science, literature and the arts. Brooklyn, New York: Thomas Kirk. pp. 187–180.
^Jefferson, Thomas (October 8, 1809, 1853). "Correspondence: To Mr Barlow". In Washington, H.A. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson; being his Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private. Published by the order of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library, from the original manuscripts, deposited in the Department of State5. Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury. pp. 475–476.Check date values in: |date= (help)
Murdock, Gail T. (November 11, 2002). "Benjamin Banneker – the man and the myths". Customer review of Bedini, Silvio A. (1999). "The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science", 2nd ed., Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society. Amazon.com. Archived from the original on 2013-07-08. Retrieved 2013-07-08.
Crew, Harvey W., Webb, William Bensing, Wooldridge, John (1892). "IV. "Permanent Capital Site Selected"". Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. Dayton, Ohio: United Brethren Publishing House. p. 87. Retrieved 2009-05-07.