Very little is known about the life of Benjamin Banneker. Here, we will throw light on the accomplishments of this notable American personality.
Evil communication corrupts good manners. I hope to live to hear that good communication corrects bad manners. – Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker is best known as one of the original surveyors of Washington, D.C. That apart, he was a mathematician, an expert astronomer, almanac maker, and a staunch opposer of slavery and racial discrimination in America. Unfortunately, very little information is available to prove whether these achievements are facts or myths. We can only rely on flimsy sources to understand the accomplishments of a man who succeeded in life against all odds.
Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731 in Baltimore county of Maryland, USA. His father, Robert, was a runaway slave and his mother, Mary, was a freed slave. Mary was born to an English indentured slave named Molly Welsh and a freed black slave named Bannaky (also known as Banna Ka). Benjamin was the eldest of the seven Banneker siblings. He grew up on a tobacco farm owned by his family. His maternal grandmother, Molly Welsh, taught him and his siblings to read and write. By the age of six, Benjamin could read out the Bible to his family. He also attended a Quaker school, where he learned simple arithmetic. He had to quit his formal education once he became old enough to work on the family farm. Benjamin spent the rest of his life, along with his family on the Baltimore farm and chose to remain single until his death.
Benjamin Banneker’s achievements are highly creditable because of the circumstances under which they were made. Firstly, Banneker came from an African-American family, which had been subjected to slavery and racial discrimination. Secondly, he had very little formal education and was a self-taught person. Let us take a look at some of his versatile achievements.
Creation of Wooden Clock
Benjamin Banneker made a working clock solely out of wood, in 1753. The mechanism of this clock was influenced by a pocket watch owned by his friend. In a span of two years, Benjamin carved every part of the wooden clock and assembled it on his own. The clock worked beautifully for nearly forty years, until it got burned and destroyed in a fire on the day of Benjamin Banneker’s burial. Banneker’s clock holds the reputation of being the first wooden clock ever created on the American continent.
Expertise in Astronomy
Benjamin Banneker is said to have gained basic knowledge in astronomy from his grandmother Molly Welsh, who had learned it from her husband Bannaky. By the year 1771, Benjamin got acquainted with Ellicott brothers who had just moved into his community. George, one of the Ellicott brothers, was an amateur astronomer. He lent several books pertaining to astronomy and mathematics. By using this knowledge, Benjamin successfully predicted a solar eclipse that took place on April 14, 1789.
Publication of Almanac
Benjamin Banneker used his expertise in astronomy to publish almanacs between 1792 to 1797. They were published under the name ‘Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris’. It contained information of celestial bodies in the sky and seasons. Benjamin added literature pertaining to his views on peace, politics, and abolition of slavery and racial discrimination. The contents of Benjamin Banneker’s almanacs clearly set them apart from competing almanacs of that time.
Survey of District of Columbia
In February 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott hired Benjamin as a part of a survey team to assist him in marking the boundaries for creating the District of Columbia. This territory was to be Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States of America. At that time, a French-American architect named Pierre Charles L’Enfant had been hired to design the layout of the capital city. On account of certain official issues, L’Enfant’s services were dismissed. L’Enfant refused to part with his original designs and plans for District of Columbia. Legend states that, Banneker with his excellent memory, skillfully recreated the entire city plans in less than 48 hours. However, there is no proof whether this is a fact or an exaggerated myth.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson
In August 1791, Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. Secretary of State. With this letter, Benjamin wanted to plea for the freedom of African-Americans. He had always spoken against racism and slavery. The letter was merely an attempt to bring an end to these social problems permanently. It is also said that, Benjamin sent a copy of his first almanac to Thomas Jefferson along with this letter. The letter started off with the following words.
…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.” Eleven days later, Thomas Jefferson replied to the letter saying,
“…nobody 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 imbecility 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.” Whether the Academy of Sciences received the almanac or not, cannot be validated due to the lack of sufficient evidence.
Death and Legacy
Benjamin Banneker died on October 9, 1806 on account of old age and long-term alcohol addiction. Also, his log cabin caught fire and burned down the day he was buried. As a result, a lot of his works, including the wooden clock got destroyed. Today, 200 years after Banneker’s death, very few records survive that give evidence of his accomplishments. This might be the reason why he remains an obscure personality. The US Postal Service commemorated him by issuing a postal stamp in the year 1980.