History, History Column

Historic Anomaly: Benjamin Banneker 1731 – 1806

by ©2022 Sarah Becker

Baltimore, 1791: “The Editors of the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia ALMANACK, feel themselves gratified in the Opportunity of presenting to the Public, through the Medium of their Press, what must be considered an extraordinary Effort of Genius—a complete and accurate EPHEMERIS for the Year 1792, calculated by a sable Descendant of Africa, who, by the Specimen of Ingenuity, evinces, to Demonstration, that mental Powers and Endowments, are not the exclusive Excellence of white People, but that rays of Science may alike illumine the Minds of Men of every Clime, (however they may differ in the Colour of their Skin).” Benjamin Banneker, America’s first Black man of Science compiled The ALMANACK in the 1790s.

Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland—a slave state—on November 9, 1731: of a free mother and formerly enslaved father. He grew up free on the family’s multi-acre tobacco farm and briefly attended a Quaker school. “Benjamin Banneker’s place, as a self-educated master of mathematics and astronomy, makes him an ideal subject for African-American history,” Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum said.

“Benjamin Banneker, a free Negro, has calculated an Almanack, to the ensuing year, 1792, which being desirous to dispose of to the best advantage, he has requested me to aid his application to you,” Baltimore’s James McHenry wrote Editors Goddard and Angell on August 26, 1791. “Having fully satisfied myself…I may venture to assure you it will do you credit as Editors. McHenry, a military surgeon, was white; a Founding Father and signer of the 1787 Constitution between the States.

“He is about fifty-nine years of age,” McHenry continued. “His father and mother having obtained their freedom, were enabled to send him to an obscure school, where he learned, when a boy reading, writing; and to leave him in their deaths, a few acres of land, upon which he has supported himself ever since…Mental exercise formed his chief amusement, and soon gave him a facility in calculation that was often serviceable to his neighbors [including] Messrs. Ellicotts, a [Quaker] family remarkable for their ingenuity.”

“George Ellicott lent him Mayer’s Tables, Ferguson’s Astronomy, Leadbeater’s Lunar-Tables, and some astronomic instruments [to] further his studies,” McHenry explained. Banneker forecast his first eclipse in 1789.

“I consider this Negro as a fresh proof that the powers of the mind are disconnected with the colour of the skin, or, in other words, a striking contradiction to Mr. [David] Hume’s doctrine,” McHenry concluded.

On June 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States (1 Stat. 130 ). The Act provided for a national capital to be established at a site along the Potomac River. President George Washington appointed three commissioners to oversee the project one of who was Andrew Ellicott, George Ellicott’s brother. A practical engineer, Andrew invited Banneker to join his team.

In February, 1791, Ellicott, Banneker and others left for Virginia—Alexandria’s Jones Point—to mark the forthcoming federal city’s boundary lines. “Because of his age, health, and the harsh winter climate Banneker’s primary responsibilities were in the observatory tent, where he maintained the regulator clock using a series of thermometers and a transit and altitude instrument,” Louis Keene wrote. “Each day, Ellicott would use the regulator clock to set his own time piece, which he would use to determine latitude. At night, Banneker would record astronomical observations.”

The National Park Service’s Jones Point Park is located in Alexandria, along the Potomac, and features not only a District boundary marker, but also one of the country’s last riverine lighthouses: the only one still standing in the Chesapeake Bay area.

“At Jones Point Park, I seek out/ the Boundary Stone in its niche/ in the retaining wall,” Baltimore poet Kim Roberts penned. “When the Potomac River recedes/ enough to detect the eroding words,/ rimmed in green algae, I picture/ Banneker camping here that cold/ damp Spring of 1791./ He is 60 years old…This is base camp/ for calculating the ten-mile square/ of Washington, D.C.”

The 1791 Georgetown Weekly Ledger praised Banneker’s work: “[Andrew Ellicott] is attended by Benjamin Banniker [sic], an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson’s concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation.”

On August 19, 1791, Banneker mailed an advance copy of his Almanack to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.  Why, because he was frustrated. It was not the color of his skin that mattered, only his work.

“Sir, Suffer me to recall to your mind that time in which the Arms and tyranny of the British Crown were exerted with every powerful effort in order to reduce you to a State of Servitude,” Banneker wrote. “Look back, I entreat you on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed, reflect on that time in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and…you…cannot but acknowledge, that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy…is the peculiar blessing of Heaven.”

“This, Sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition,” Banneker continued. “It was now Sir, that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publickly held forth…‘We hold these truths to be Self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

“[Y]ou were then impressed with…the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled,” Banneker penned. “But, Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges…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…which you which you professedly detested in others.”

“This calculation, Sir, is the production of my arduous Study…; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the Secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein thro my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not to recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages which I have had to encounter,” Banneker concluded.

Thomas Jefferson promptly replied, on August 30, 1791: “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 other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and 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 circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit.—I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanack to…the Secretary of the Academy of Paris…because I considered it as a document to which your whole Colour had a right.”

“The Virginia Gazette and Alexandria Advertiser twice published notices of the 1792 Almanack’s release. It described the Almanack as “a complete and accurate ephemeris, calculated by the ingenious Mr. Benjamin Banneker, a free Black Man…whose calculations have met the Approbation of several of the most distinguished Astronomers in America.”

The Smithsonian includes many of Banneker’s scientific instruments among its artifacts. His statue is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Museum also credits him with “documenting the Brood X Cicadas seventeen year cycle.”

Banneker died on October 9, 1806. Two months later, on December 2, President Jefferson sent a message to Congress requesting a ban on the importation of slaves to the United States. Congress passed the legislation, “An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States” on March 2, 1807. Importations of such—“any Negro, mulatto, or person of colour…as a slave”—ended beginning January 1, 1808.

May 7 is National Astronomy Day, July 20 National Moon Day.  Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first NASA astronaut to step on the moon’s surface did so on July 20, 1969. “One giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong famously said. Banneker’s “one giant leap” occurred well before. His legacy is “Immortal” Chicago’s Adler Planetarium said.

“Without him our nation’s capital would not exist as we know it,” The Lemelson-MIT Program exclaimed. “The Almanack won him fame [and] he used his reputation to promote social change.” Banneker was “inspired.” May we all learn from him!

According to schooldigger.com Alexandria City Public Schools rank poorly; 98th out of 132 Virginia districts. Jefferson Houston Elementary [preK-8], once a STEM school now IB, ranks 1011th out of 1102 Virginia Elementary Schools. The school is 51% black, 59.9% of students receive free & reduced lunches and the student teacher ratio is 13:1. Benjamin Banneker awaits an opportunity to share his story.

It is time for the town folk to work hand in hand with the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum; to explain not only the Quaker Testimony of Equality, but also the experimental science. At Jones Point with the National Park Service, virtually or otherwise within ACPS. The curious child will become interested.

I know it works, it has been done before. Successfully.

About the Author:Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com 

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