Living as a free black man in 18th century America, Benjamin Banneker was a unique figure amongst his rural Maryland community.
A competent astronomer, his publications challenged the idea that African-Americans were mentally inferior to their white counterparts, with Banneker even writing directly to US Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson on the discussion of racial inequality.
Here are 10 facts about this unsung hero of early America:
1. He was born in Maryland in 1731
Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. Most reports state that his mother was Mary Banneky, a free black woman, and his father Robert, a freed slave from Guinea, and the family grew up on a 100-acre tobacco farm which Banneker inherited upon his father’s death.
Despite the deeply ingrained racism and commonplace slavery prevalent in American society, the Bannekers appear to have enjoyed some autonomy in their everyday lives.
2. He is thought to have been largely self-taught
Though little is known about his early life, it is recorded that Banneker’s parents sent him to a small Quaker school as a child where he learnt to read, write and perform arithmetic. His schooling is then presumed to have ended when he was old enough to help on his family’s farm, though he notably continued to learn through borrowed books and manuscripts.
3. At 21 he crafted a wooden clock that kept perfect time
After studying pocket watches to master their mechanics, Banneker gained the admiration of his local community when he crafted a wooden clock that kept perfect time.
With clocks an uncommon occurrence in rural 18th century Maryland, it is reported that many bemused visitors arrived at Banneker’s farm to admire his construction.
4. He struck up a friendship with a family of Quakers
In 1772, brothers Andrew, John and Joseph Ellicott purchased land near Banneker’s farm to construct a host of gristmills, which would later grow into the village of Ellicott’s Mills.
A Quaker family, the Ellicotts held progressive views on racial equality and Banneker soon became well acquainted with them. Likely bonding over their shared intellectual pursuits, Andrew’s son George loaned Banneker books and equipment to begin a more formal study of astronomy, and the following year he completed his first calculation of a solar eclipse.
5. He assisted a project in establishing the borders of the District of Colombia
In 1791, Thomas Jefferson asked surveyor Major Andrew Ellicott, the son of Joseph Ellicott, to survey the land intended to contain a new federal district. Ellicott hired Banneker to assist in the initial survey of the district’s boundaries.
Some biographers state that Banneker’s role in this was to make astronomical observations and calculations to establish base points, and to maintain a clock used to relate locations on the ground to the positions of the stars at specific times.
The territory that came from this survey became the District of Columbia and later Washington D.C., the federal capital district of the United States.
6. He used his knowledge of astronomy to write almanacs
Banneker continued making astronomical calculations to predict eclipses and planetary conjunctions, which were to be included in almanacs, books containing a calendar of the year and recorded various astronomical phenomena.
Though he had struggled to have his work published previously, he was aided by Andrew Ellicott in forwarding it to leading figures in the world of astronomy and publishing. The work was deemed worthy of publication, though not without comment on Banneker’s race and his ability to compute such calculations.
Banneker reportedly responded:
I am annoyed to find that the subject of my race is so much stressed. The work is either correct or it is not. In this case, I believe it to be perfect.
Despite this, Banneker’s work was published annually from 1792-97 by white northern abolitionists, with the manuscripts’ introductions declaring proof of the intelligence of not only Banneker, but wider black community.
7. He corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on slavery and racial equality
A champion of racial equality, on 19 August 1791 Banneker sent a handwritten copy of his first 48-page almanac to Thomas Jefferson, alongside a 1,400-word letter challenging Jefferson’s stance on the inferiority of black people and questioning his commitment to true liberty.
In it he stated:
…however variable we may be in Society or religion, however diversified in situation or colour, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him [God].
Though Jefferson responded politely, he did little to help the issue in practical terms, and in later years disparaged Banneker in his private letters.
8. Banneker died in 1806 aged 74
On 9 October 1806, Banneker died in his log cabin in present-day Oella, Maryland, after selling much of his home to his Ellicott neighbours and others in the area.
He never married and left behind no children, suffering alcoholism later in life that may have hastened his death.
9. A fire destroyed many of his personal papers and artefacts
On the day of his funeral, a fire ripped through his log cabin, destroying many of his belongings and papers.
Those in possession of his remaining manuscripts came forward to donate them to various historical societies, including the original letters between himself and Jefferson.
In 1987, his journal was donated by a member of the Ellicott family, who had also held onto a number of his personal items. Many of these were eventually sold and are currently on display in the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella.
10. A substantial mythology later grew up around him
In the years following his death several urban legends began to grow up around Banneker’s life and legacy.
These included over-exaggerating his role in laying the boundary markers of the District of Colombia and claims that both his wooden clock and his almanac were the first built in America.
Despite these unfounded claims, Banneker’s legacy is a significant one, holding space as an impressive and interesting figure amongst the prejudiced landscape of the early United States of America.