Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Black History Month: Benjamin Banneker

Silvo A. Bendini's biography of Benjamin Banneker was titled The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science.  Fewer true words could be spoken about Bendini's subject.

Benjamin Banneker, a free black man, was born November 9, 1731, in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland. His parents, Robert and Mary Banneker, were also free blacks.  Robert had purchased his freedom, and Mary was the daughter of a freed slave and an English woman.

While Banneker was largely self-taught, he enrolled in a Quaker school as a young man.  He was especially gifted in mathematics, and soon grew beyond what his teacher could teach him--to the point that Banneker would make up his own math problems in order to solve them.

A watch marked a turning point in young Banneker's life.  He was so fascinated with a watch owned by a friend of the family, Josef Levi, that Mr. Levi gave him the watch to keep and told him how it worked.  Banneker kept taking the watch apart and putting it bck together.  Then, he borrowed a book on geometry and a book on Isaac Newton's laws of motion.  It took him two years, but he eventually finished a hand-carved wooden clock. It reportedly kept perfect time for the next thirty years.

Banneker also grew fascinated with the stars and astronomy.  His talents caught the eye of a family in the Baltimore area, the Ellicots, who loaned Banneker books on astronomy and other areas of study. In 1791, a member of the family hired Banneker to help survey territory for the city that would eventually become Washington, D.C.  His job included working in the observatory tent recording the movements of the stars.  Unfortunately, Banneker suddenly became ill after only three months.

He later gained attention from the almanacs he published between 1792 and 1797.  The almanacs contained his astronomical calculations, opinion articles, some literature, and information on the tides--the latter being very useful to fishermen.

While Banneker was publishing his almanacs, he also carried on a correspondence with then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was a slaveholder, but Banneker thought that he would be open to seeing African Americans as more that just slaves.  So he wrote to Jefferson, saying that he was a free man "of the African race" and also acknowleging that he was taking a risk by writing to him, given "the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion."  He then gently criticized Jefferson and others for enslaving people like him while, at the same time, fighting for their own independence.  Banneker hoped in his letter to encourage Jefferson to "readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us."  Enclosed with the letter was a handwritten almanac for 1792.

Jefferson wrote back, telling Banneker that he'd sent his almanace to the secretary of the French Academy of Sciences because he "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."  In 1793, Banneker published his letter to Jefferson, and Jefferson's response, in his almanac for that year.

Banneker died on October 9, 1806, shortly after his usual morning walk.  Two days later, during Banneker's funeral, his house caught on fire and burned, destroying nearly everything, including the wooden clock he'd so painstakingly assembled.  Had Banneker's nephew not given a copy of Banneker's astronomical journal to the Ellicott family, we would probably have no record of his life.

Next time you hear a story about a Ron McNair (of the Challenger mission), a Mae Jemison, or any other African-American inventor or scientist, pause a moment and give thanks for Benjamin Banneker, who pointed the way.

Sources used:

The Black Inventor On-Line Museum, "Inventor: Benjamin Banneker."
"Benjamin Banneker," Biography.com

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