Benjamin Banneker

 On Nov. 9, 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland.  He was the descendent of an African; however, he was born free because his mother was free.  Banneker’s grandmother, Molly Walsh was an English immigrant and indentured servant who married an enslaved African named Banna ka, who had been brought to the Colonies by a slave trader.  Molly had served seven years as an indentured servant before she acquired and worked on her own small farm.  Molly Walsh purchased her future husband Banna Ka and another African to work on her farm.  The name Banna ka was later changed to Bannaky and then changed to Banneker.  Benjamin’s mother Mary Banneker was born free.  Benjamin’s father Rodger was a former slave who had bought his freedom before marrying Mary.  

            Benjamin Banneker was a self-educated scientist, astronomer, inventor, writer and antislavery publicist.  He built the world’s first striking clock entirely from wood, published a Farmers’ Almanac, and actively campaigned against slavery.  He was one of the first African Americas to gain distinction in science.

            What formal education he received was from the Quakers, but he was basically self-taught and educated.  He quickly revealed to the world his inventive nature and first achieved national acclaim for his scientific work in the 1791 survey of the Federal Territory, now Washington, D.C.  In 1753, he built the first watch made in America, a wooden pocket watch.  Twenty years later, Banneker began making astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a 1789 solar eclipse.  His estimate made well in advance of the celestial event, contradicted predictions of better known mathematicians and astronomers.

            Banneker’s mechanical and mathematical abilities impressed many including Thomas Jefferson, who encountered Banneker after George Elliot had recommended him for the surveying team that laid out Washington D.C.  Banneker is best known for his six annual Farmer’s Almanacs published between 1792 and 1797.  In his free time, Banneker began compiling the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris. The almanacs included information on medicines and medical treatment, and listed tides, astronomical information, and eclipses, all calculated by Banneker himself

            On Aug. 19, 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to secretary of state Thomas Jefferson.  Banneker wrote to Jefferson questioning the slaveholders’ sincerity as a “friend to liberty.”  He urged Jefferson to help get rid of ‘absurd and false ideas’ that one race is superior to another.  He wished Jefferson’s sentiments to be the same as his, that “one Universal Father afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties.”  Jefferson responded with praise and appreciations for Banneker’s accomplishments as a Black man.