Benjamin Banneker is often considered the first African American man of science. Though descendant to enslaved Africans, Benjamin was born free. Banneker’s father, Robert, purchased the 100 acre Banneker farm in 1737, when Benjamin was six years old. Pre-dating the Ellicott Brothers by 30 years, the farmstead was an example of the types of settlements throughout the region before its industrial days.
Banneker was an avid learner. His grandmother provided his early education, and he studied the nature around him by watching the patterns of bees and cicadas in his farm. Banneker grew interested in mathematics and began teaching himself with whatever books his family could gather. At age 22, using a friend’s pocket watch as a model, Banneker constructed a wooden clock that kept accurate time for decades.
Familiar with astronomy, mathematics and technical instruments, Banneker joined Andrew Ellicott in the 1791survey of the boundary for the new United States capital city, Washington, D.C., which was cut from land in Virginia and Maryland.
After returning to his farm, Banneker published six almanacs, beginning in 1792. The almanacs included Banneker’s daily predictions of sun rise and set, moon phase and planet positions, predictions he himself had computed.
Banneker used the celebrity resulting from the publication of his almanacs to stand up for his beliefs. The son of a former slave, Banneker ardently opposed slavery. With a copy of his almanac attached, Banneker wrote Thomas Jefferson petitioning for the end of slavery. He critiqued Jefferson, arguing that the instituion of slavery contradicted the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Banneker stood firmly for his principles despite the institutional challenges that he faced. Banneker’s exceptional legacy is remembered today at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Although his original home no longer remains, a museum in his honor and a replica cabin rest on the site. If you are interested in learning more about this outstanding Marylander, visit the Benjamin Banneker HP&M
For more information on the park, visit:
To read Banneker’s whole letter to Jefferson, visit:
To lean more about Benjamin Banneker’s farmstead, visit: