Benjamin Banneker was an African American astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, almanac author and farmer. Unlike many other black men in America, Banneker was a free man and not a slave.
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.
Benjamin Banneker, the son of Robert and Mary Bannaky was born in 1731. His grandfather was a slave from Africa and his grandmother Molly Walsh, was an indentured servant from England. When she finished her seven years of bondage, she bought a farm along with two slaves to help her take care of it. Molly Walsh freed both slaves and married one, Benjamin's grandfather Bannaky. The couple had several children, among them a daughter named Mary. When Mary Bannaky grew up, she bought a slave named Robert, married him and had several children, including Benjamin. The family name was gradually changed to Banneker.
As a young man Benjamin Banneker borrowed a pocket watch from a well-to-do neighbor. After carefully taking it apart, he made a drawing of each component, then reassembled the watch and returned it, fully functioning, to its owner. From his drawings Banneker then proceeded to carve, out of wood, enlarged replicas of each part. Calculating the proper number of teeth for each gear and the necessary relationships between the gears, he constructed a working wooden clock that kept accurate time and struck the hours. Completing the clock in 1753, at the age of 22, it continued to work and strike the hours until his death.
After his father died in 1759, Benjamin Banneker continued to live with his mother and sisters. 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. By borrowing equipment and books, and having no formal training Benjamin Banneker was able to not only study astronomy, but became skilled to the point of being able to predict future solar and lunar eclipses. The following year, he shared his work on astronomy with George Ellicott.
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 federal district, which will become the District of Columbia. 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.
On August 19, 1791, after departing the federal capital area, Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who was currently 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." The letter ended: "And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect, Your most obedient humble servant, BENJAMIN BANNEKER."
Without directly responding to Banneker's accusation, Jefferson replied to Banneker's letter 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: "Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791. Sir, I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. 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 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 color had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient humble servant. Th. Jefferson"
Benjamin Banneker compiled the ephemeris, or information table, for annual almanacs that were published for the years 1792 through 1797. In an era when books of any kind were a luxury found in few households, almanacs were common. They included scientific information, such as weather forecasts, tide tables, lunar and solar eclipses, and the times of the rising and setting of the sun and moon; they were also infused with mild poems, proverbs, and other bits of general information. What made Banneker's Almanacs innovative, aside from the fact that they were produced by a black man in an age when African Americans were considered incapable of scientific, mathematical or literary accomplishment, was the inclusion of commentaries, literature, and fillers that had a political and humanitarian purpose. "Benjamin Banneker's Almanac" was a top seller from Pennsylvania to Virginia and even into Kentucky.
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. 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