"Get into the Know"
"Evil communication corrupts good manners. I hope to live to hear that good communication corrects bad manners." Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 9, 1806) was a free African American astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, almanac author and farmer.
Family history and early life
Although it is difficult to verify details of Benjamin Banneker's family history, it appears that he was a grandson of a European American named Molly Welsh. The story goes that Molly met a slave named Banneka when she purchased him to help establish a farm located near the future site of Ellicott's Mills (see Ellicott City, Maryland History) west of Baltimore, Maryland. This part of Maryland was out of the mainstream of the colonial South, and as result had a more tolerant attitude toward African Americans than did colonial areas in which slavery was more prevalent.
Perhaps a member of the Dogon tribe, reputed to have a historical knowledge of astronomy (see Dogon and Sirius), Banneka may have cleared Molly's land, solved irrigation problems, and implemented a crop rotation for her. Soon thereafter, Molly freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her.
Benjamin's mother, Mary, was the daughter of Molly and Banneka. Although born after Banneka's death, Benjamin may have acquired some of his grandfather's knowledge via Molly, who appears to have taught him how to read, farm, and interpret the sky as Banneka had taught her. Little is known about Benjamin's father Robert, a first-generation slave who had fled his owner.
As a young teenager, Banneker met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker farmer who established a school near Banneker's family's farm. Heinrichs shared his personal library with Banneker and provided Banneker's only classroom instruction. (During Banneker's lifetime, Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and advocates of racial equality in accordance with their Testimony of Equality belief.)
Once he was old enough to help on his parents' farm, Benjamin's formal education ended. He spent most of the rest of his life at the farm.
The First Wooden Clock in America
Apparently using as a model a pocket watch he had borrowed from a merchant or traveler, Banneker carved wooden replicas of each piece and used the parts to make a clock that struck hourly. He completed the clock in 1753, at the age of 21. The clock continued to work until his death.
Neighbors, work, and study
After his father died in 1759, Banneker lived with his mother and sisters. Then in 1771, a white Quaker family, the Ellicotts, moved into the area and built mills along the Patapsco River. Banneker supplied their workers with food, and studied the mills. In 1788 he began his more formal study of astronomy as an adult, using books and equipment that George Ellicott lent to him. The following year, he sent George Ellicott his work on the 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 100-square-mile (260 km2) federal district (initially, the Territory of Columbia; later, the District of Columbia) that Maryland and Virginia would cede to the federal government of the United States for the nation's capital in accordance with the federal Residence Act of 1790 and later legislation (see Boundary Stones (District of Columbia)).
Banneker's activities on the survey team resembled those used in celestial navigation during his lifetime. His duties consisted primarily of making astronomical observations at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, to ascertain the location of the starting point for the survey and of maintaining a clock that he used when relating points on the surface of the Earth to the positions of stars at specific times. Because of illness and the difficulties in helping to survey the area at the age of 59, Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791 and 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
Banneker's almanacs and journals
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 six-year series of almanacs, which were published for the years 1792 through 1797 in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He also kept a series of journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations and his diary. The notebooks additionally contained a number of mathematical calculations and puzzles.
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.
The 1792 almanac included the times for the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Weather forecasts and dates for yearly feasts were also included. Readers also saw a tide table for the Chesapeake Bay and home treatments for illnesses. In his 1793 almanac, Banneker included letters sent between Thomas Jefferson and himself. The cover of his 1795 almanac had a woodcut portrait of him as he may have appeared as a young man.
The almanacs' editors prefaced the publications with adulatory references to Banneker and his race, such as this excerpt from a 1796 edition:
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.
Views on peace, education, and the relationship of government and religion
Banneker's 1793 almanac 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.
This edition of Bannker's almanac was published two years after the ratification in 1791 of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, ...."
Views on slavery and racial equality
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.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson on racism
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.
Banneker's letter did not offer any evidence to support this allegation. His message ended with the statement:
And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect,
Your most obedient humble servant,
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.
While Banneker's letter expressed similar sentiments, his missive went further when charging Jefferson with criminality and fraud when dealing with slaves.
Thomas Jefferson's reply to Banneker
Without directly responding to Banneker's accusation, Jefferson replied to Banneker's letter on August 30, 1791, 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 in part:
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 colors of men; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. … I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, 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 color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.
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.
In 1809, three years after Banneker's death, Jefferson wrote:
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.
Later life, death and burial
Banneker never married. Because of declining sales, his last almanac was published in 1797. After selling much of his farm to the Ellicotts and others, he died in his log cabin nine years later on October 9, 1806, exactly one month before his 75th birthday. His chronic alcoholism, which worsened as he aged, may have contributed to his death. A commemorative obelisk that the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 stands near his unmarked grave in an Oella, Maryland, churchyard.
Mythology of Benjamin Banneker
A substantial mythology exaggerating 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 area around the time that he participated in the federal district boundary survey. Others involve his clock and his almanacs. All lack support by historical evidence. Some are contradicted by such evidence.
Plan of the City of Washington
While Andrew Ellicott and his team were conducting the federal district boundary survey, Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant was preparing a plan for the federal capital city (the City of Washington), which would be located in a relatively small area bounded by the Potomac River, the Anacostia River (known at the time as the "Eastern Branch"), the base of the fall line and Rock Creek at the center of the much larger 100-square-mile (260 km2) federal district. In late February 1792, President George Washington dismissed L'Enfant, who had failed to have his plan published and who was experiencing frequent conflicts with the three Commissioners that Washington had appointed to supervise the planning and survey of the federal district and city.
According to a Banneker legend, L'Enfant took his plans with him after his dismissal, leaving no copies behind. As the story is told, Banneker spent two days reconstructing the bulk of the city's plan from his presumably photographic memory. According to the story, the plans that Banneker purportedly drew from memory provided the basis for the later construction of the federal capital city. Titles of works relating this fable have touted Banneker as "The Man Who Saved Washington" and "An Early American Hero".
In one version of the tale, Banneker and Andrew Ellicott both surveyed the area of, and configured the final layout for, the placement of major governmental buildings, boulevards and avenues while reconstructing L'Enfant's plan. According to this version, Banneker either "made astronomical calculations and implementations" that established points of significance in the capital city, including those of the "16th Street Meridian" (see White House meridian), the White House, the Capitol and the Treasury Building, or "helped in selecting the sites" of those features.
A contemporary reprint of Andrew Ellicott's 1792 "Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia"
A contemporary reprint of Andrew Ellicott's 1792 "Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia"
However, historical research has shown that the legend cannot be correct. Banneker left the federal capital area and returned to Ellicott's Mills in April 1791. At that time, L'Enfant was still developing his plan for the federal city and had not yet been dismissed from his job. L'Enfant presented his plan to President Washington in August 1791, four months after Banneker had left.
Further, there never was any need to reconstruct L'Enfant's plan. After largely completing the district boundary survey, Andrew Ellicott began a survey of the federal city in accordance with L'Enfant's plan. During a contentious period in February 1792, Ellicott informed the Commissioners that L'Enfant had refused to give him an original plan that L'Enfant possessed at the time. However, Washington and others, including Ellicott, had in their possession at least one original and copy of various versions of the plan that L'Enfant had also prepared. Andrew Ellicott, with the aid of his brother, Benjamin Ellicott, then revised L'Enfant's plan, despite L'Enfant's protests. Shortly thereafter, Washington dismissed L'Enfant. After L'Enfant departed, Andrew Ellicott continued the city survey in accordance with revisions to the plan that he and his brother had made.
There is no historical evidence that shows that Banneker was involved in any of this. As a researcher has reported, the letter that Andrew Ellicott addressed to the Commissioners in February 1792 describing his revision of L'Enfant's plan did not mention Banneker's name. Thomas Jefferson did not describe any connection between Banneker and the plan for the federal city when relating his knowledge of Banneker's works in his 1809 letter.
Location: Westside Community Center, 930 West Seventh Street, Bloomington (Monroe County, Indiana)
Installed: 2008 Indiana Historical Bureau, Bloomingtons Black Business and Professional Association, Repairing the Breach Committee, and the City of Bloomington
The U.S. Library of Congress presently owns a copy of a plan for the federal city that bears the adopted name of the plan's author, "Peter Charles L'Enfant". The U.S. National Archives holds a copy of "Ellicott's engraved Plan superimposed on the Plan of L'Enfant showing the changes made in the engraved Plan under the direction of President Washington". As an original version of L'Enfant's plan still exists, President Washington and Ellicott clearly had at least one such version available for their use when L'Enfant departed.
Appointment to planning commission for Washington, D.C.
In 1918, Henry E. Baker, an assistant examiner in the United States Patent Office, wrote of Banneker in the Journal of Negro History: "It is on record that it was on the suggestion of his friend, Major Andrew Ellicott, ..., that Thomas Jefferson nominated Banneker and Washington appointed him a member of the commission..." whose duties were to "define the boundary line and lay out the streets of the Federal Territory, later called the District of Columbia". However, Baker did not identify the record on which he based this statement. Baker additionally stated that Andrew Ellicott and L'Enfant were also members of this commission.
Historical evidence contradicts Baker's statements. In 1791, President Washington appointed Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll and David Stuart to be the three commissioners who, in accordance with the authority that the Residence Act had granted to the President, would oversee the survey of the federal district, and "according to such Plans, as the President shall approve", provide public buildings to accommodate the federal government in 1800. The Residence Act did not authorize the President to appoint any more than three commissioners that could serve at the same time. As Banneker, Andrew Ellicott, and L'Enfant performed their tasks during the time that Johnson, Carroll and Stuart were serving as commissioners, President Washington could not have legally appointed either Banneker, Ellicott or L'Enfant to serve as members of the "commission" that Baker described.
Other legends and embellishments
In 1930, writer Lloyd Morris claimed in an academic journal article entitled "The Negro 'Renaissance'" that "Benjamin Banneker attracted the attention of a President.... President Thomas Jefferson sent a copy of one of Banneker's almanacs to his friend, the French philosopher Condorcet...." However, Thomas Jefferson sent Banneker's almanac to the Marquis de Condorcet in 1791, a decade before he became President in 1801.
Benjamin Banneker cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943, claiming that Banneker had been a "city planner", "was placed on the commission which surveyed and laid out the city of Washington, D.C.", and had "constructed the first clock made in America".
In 1943, an African American artist, Charles Alston, who was at the time an employee of the United States Office of War Information, designed a cartoon that embellished the statements that Henry E. Baker had made in 1918. Like Baker, Alston incorrectly claimed that Banneker "was placed on the commission which surveyed and laid out the city of Washington, D.C." Alston extended this claim by also stating that Banneker had been a "city planner". His cartoon further stated that Banneker had "constructed the first clock made in America".
In 1976, the singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder celebrated Banneker's mythical feats in his song "Black Man", from the album Songs in the Key of Life. The lyrics of the song state:
Who was the man who helped design the nation's capitol, made the first clock to give time in America and wrote the first almanac? Benjamin Banneker - a black man.
The question's answer is incorrect. Banneker did not help design either the U.S. Capitol or the nation's capital city. The first known clockmaker of record in America was Thomas Nash, an early settler of New Haven in 1638. A known American clock was made in 1680. "Pierce's (Peirse's) Almanac of 1639 calculated for New England and printed by Stephen Day" preceded Banneker's birth by nearly a century.
In 2000, historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., wrote in the eighth edition of the book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, whose first edition had been published in 1947, that the "most distinguished honor that Banneker received was his appointment to serve with the commission to define the boundary lines and lay out the streets of the District of Columbia." The writers, who referenced Baker's 1918 article, also stated that Banneker's friend, George Ellicott, was a member of the commission and that Thomas Jefferson had submitted Banneker's name to President Washington.
However, neither Banneker nor George Ellicott received appointments to serve on any such commission. Further, although Andrew Ellicott led the survey that defined the District's boundary lines and, with L'Enfant, laid out the capital city's streets, George Ellicott did not participate in either of these activities. Additionally, there is no historical evidence that shows that President Washington participated in the process that resulted in Banneker's appointment as an assistant to Andrew Ellicott on the District boundary survey team.
In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante included Benjamin Banneker on his biographical list of 100 Greatest African Americans. However, a reviewer of this publication stated: "More serious perhaps is the lack of more critical information on the people’s whose biographies are presented."
Dr Ali goes more in depth with evidence that Ben Franklin was Actually Benjamin Banneker. Banneker was not his real last name, it was Banna Ka (Kemetic). And his Moorish Name was Emmanuel Mu Ali Ben Bey. A MUST HAVE!!!!
In 2005, actor James Avery narrated a DVD entitled A History of Black Achievement in America. A quiz based on a section of the DVD entitled "Emergence of the Black Hero" asked:
Benjamin Banneker was a member of the planning commission for ____________ .
a. New York City
c. Washington, D.C.
However, no historical evidence shows that Banneker was a member of the planning commission for any of these four cities.
Several historical markers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., contain information relating to Benjamin Banneker that is unsupported by historical evidence or is contradicted by such evidence:
A commemorative historical marker that the Maryland Historical Society erected on the present grounds of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park in Baltimore County, Maryland, states that Banneker "published the first Maryland almanac" in 1792. In reality, Banneker modeled the format of his almanac after a series of almanacs (The United States Almanack) that Andrew Ellicott had authored from 1781 to 1785. Ellicott had lived in Maryland during some of those years. Ellicott's almanacs were published in Baltimore, Maryland. Further, Banneker did not "publish" his 1792 almanac. Although he authored this work, others printed, distributed and sold it.
A historical marker that the National Park Service erected in Benjamin Banneker Park in Washington, D.C., states in an unreferenced paragraph:
Banneker became intrigued by a pocket watch he had seen as a young man. Using a knife he intricately carved out the wheels and gears of a wooden timepiece. The remarkable clock he constructed from memory kept time and struck the hours for the next fifty years.
However, Banneker constructed the clock at the age of 21, when he was still a young man. No historical evidence shows that he constructed the clock from memory. Further, it is open to question as to whether the clock was actually "remarkable". Wooden clocks were apparently constructed in America in 1715, and were in commercial production there by 1745, eight years before Banneker completed his own clock.
In 2008, when the Newseum opened to the public on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., visitors looking over the Avenue could read a historical marker that stated:
Benjamin Banneker assisted Chief Surveyor Andrew Ellicott in laying out the Avenue based on Pierre L’Enfant’s Plan. President George Washington appointed Ellicott and Banneker to survey the boundaries of the new city.
Little or none of this appears to be correct. Banneker had no involvement with the laying out of Pennsylvania Avenue or with L’Enfant’s Plan. Andrew Ellicott surveyed the boundaries of the federal district (not the “boundaries of the new city”) at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson. Ellicott (not Washington) appointed Banneker to assist in the boundary survey.
Commemorative U.S. quarter dollar coin nomination
In 2008, the District of Columbia government considered selecting an image of Banneker for the reverse side of the District of Columbia quarter in the 2009 District of Columbia and United States Territories Quarter Program. The narrative supporting this selection alleged that Banneker was "among the first ever African-American presidential appointees" and that Banneker was "a founder of Washington, D.C." After the District chose to commemorate another person on the coin, the District's mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, sent a letter to the Director of the United States Mint, Edmund C. Moy, that claimed that Banneker was "a scientific genius who played an integral role in the physical design of the nation's capital." However, no president ever appointed Banneker to any position. Further, Banneker played no role at all in the design, development or founding of the nation's capital beyond his two-month participation in the two-year survey of the federal district's boundaries. Additionally, the Mayor's opinion of Banneker's intellect appears to have exceeded the one that Thomas Jefferson had expressed nearly two centuries earlier.
Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, Baltimore County, Maryland
A park commemorating Benjamin Banneker is located at the former site of Banneker's farm and residence in Catonsville, Baltimore County, Maryland, between Ellicott City and the City of Baltimore. The Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks manages the park, which was dedicated on June 9, 1998. The park encompasses 138 acres (0.56 km2) and contains extensive nature trails. The primary focus of the park is a museum highlighting Banneker's contributions. The museum contains a visitors center that features a collection of Banneker's works, a community gallery, a gift shop and a patio garden.
On November 12, 2009, officials opened a 224 square feet (20.8 m2) replica of Banneker's log cabin on the park grounds, reportedly two days before the 278th anniversary of Banneker's birth. Baltimore County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly secured a $400,000 state bond for the design and construction of the cabin.
A historical marker that the Maryland Historical Society erected stands on the grounds of the park. The marker replaced the last of three earlier markers that vandals had previously destroyed.
Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial, Washington, D.C.
A small urban park memorializing Benjamin Banneker is located at a prominent overlook at the south end of L'Enfant Promenade in southwest Washington, D.C., a half mile (800 m) south of the Smithsonian Institution's "Castle" on the National Mall. The National Park Service administers the park and has erected a historical marker there. The Government of the District of Columbia owns the park's site, which is inside of a traffic circle (Benjamin Banneker Circle). The park, which was constructed in 1970, is now stop number 8 on Washington's Southwest Heritage Trail. In 2004, the D.C. Preservation League listed the park as one of the most endangered places in the District of Columbia.
Benjamin Banneker Museum; Baltimore, Maryland
In 1998, the 105th United States Congress enacted legislation that authorized the Washington Interdependence Council of the District of Columbia to establish at the Council's expense a memorial in the District that would commemorate Banneker's accomplishments. The Council plans to erect this memorial in or near the park. In 2006, the Council held a charrette to select the artist that would design the memorial.Construction of the memorial will begin after the United States Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission approve the memorial's design and location in accordance with the legislation that authorized the establishment of the memorial and with the United States Code (40 U.S.C. § 8905).
Benjamin Banneker postage stamp
On February 15, 1980, the United States Postal Service issued in Annapolis, Maryland, a 15 cent stamp that illustrated a portrait of Banneker. An image of Banneker standing behind a short telescope mounted on a tripod is superimposed upon the portrait. The device shown in the stamp resembles Andrew Ellicott's transit and equal altitude instrument, which is presently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The stamp is part of the Postal Service's Black Heritage stamp series.