Astronomer, Mathematician, Writer
Benjamin Banneker was a largely self-educated mathematician, astronomer, compiler of almanacs and writer.
Who Was Benjamin Banneker?
A free Black man who owned a farm near Baltimore, Benjamin Banneker was largely self-educated in astronomy and mathematics. He was later called upon to assist in the surveying of territory for the construction of the nation's capital. He also became an active writer of almanacs and exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson, politely challenging him to do what he could to ensure racial equality.
Born on November 9, 1731, in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, Banneker was the son of an ex-slave named Robert and his wife, Mary Banneky. Mary was the daughter of an Englishwoman named Molly Welsh, a former indentured servant, and her husband, Bannka, an ex-slave whom she freed and who asserted that he came from tribal royalty in West Africa.
Because both of his parents were free, Benjamin escaped the wrath of slavery as well. He was taught to read by his maternal grandmother and for a very short time attended a small Quaker school. Banneker was primarily self-educated. His early accomplishments included constructing an irrigation system for the family farm and a wooden clock that was reputed to keep accurate time and ran for more than 50 years until his death. In addition, Banneker taught himself astronomy and accurately forecasted lunar and solar eclipses. After his father's passing, he ran his own farm for years, cultivating a business selling tobacco via crops.
Interests in Astronomy and Surveying
Banneker's talents and intelligence eventually came to the attention of the Ellicott family, entrepreneurs who had made a name and fortune by building a series of gristmills in the Baltimore area in the 1770s. George Ellicott had a large personal library and loaned Banneker numerous books on astronomy and other fields.
In 1791, Andrew Ellicott, George’s cousin, hired Banneker to assist in surveying territory for the nation’s capital city. He worked in the observatory tent using a zenith sector to record the movement of the stars. However, due to a sudden illness, Banneker was only able to work for Ellicott for about three months.
Banneker's true acclaim, however, came from his almanacs, which he published for six consecutive years during the later years of his life, between 1792 and 1797. These handbooks included his own astronomical calculations as well as opinion pieces, literature and medical and tidal information, with the latter particularly useful to fishermen. Outside of his almanacs, Banneker also published information on bees and calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust.
Letter to Jefferson
Banneker's accomplishments extended into other realms as well, including civil rights. In 1791, Thomas Jefferson was secretary of state and Banneker considered the respected Virginian, though a slaveholder, to also be open to viewing African Americans as more than slaves. Thus, he wrote Jefferson a letter hoping that he would “readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us." To further support his point, Banneker included a handwritten manuscript of an almanac for 1792, containing his astronomical calculations.
In his letter, Banneker acknowledged he was “of the African race” and a free man. He recognized that he was taking “a liberty” writing to Jefferson, which would be unacceptable considering “the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion.” Banneker then respectfully chided Jefferson and other patriots for their hypocrisy, enslaving people like him while fighting the British for their own independence.
Jefferson quickly acknowledged Banneker's letter, writing a response. He told Banneker that he took “the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet [secretary of the French Academy of Sciences]...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.” Banneker published Jefferson’s letter alongside his original piece of correspondence in his 1793 almanac. Banneker's outspokenness with regard to the issue of slavery earned him the widespread support of the abolitionist societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania, both of which helped him publish his almanac.