Benjamin Banneker

Posted on Posted in Main Blog, On The Shoulders Of Giants, Southern Griot
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Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9th, 1731 in Ellicott’s Mill, Maryland. His parents were Robert and Marry Banneky. His father was from Guinea and his mother was the daughter of Molly Welsh, an English indentured servant. Banneker’s parents were free so he didn’t experience slavery, this would help set the course for his brilliant future. He was taught how to read by his grandmother Molly as well as attended a Quaker school early in his learning. Banneker no longer attended school once he began working on his family’s farm. With the exception of what he learned from his grandmother and the Quaker school, Banneker was self-educated. He was known as an avid reader, learning as much as he could as often as he could. He also began mastering mathematics and developing problem solving skills.

By the time Banneker was 22 he built a string wall clock which he modeled after a pocket watch. The most brilliant thing about the wall clock is he had never seen one before he created his. He used wood and his pocket knife to create the clock; it is stated that the clock still worked even after Banneker’s death. He even taught himself astronomy and it would pay off for him later in life. In 1771 the Ellicott family moved near the Banneker family farm, their union with Banneker’s would help change America. Andrew Ellicott was appointed by George Washington to survey selected pieces of land on which to build the new nation’s capital. Ellicott need the help of someone with extensive knowledge in astronomy and surveying. Banneker was recommended for the job by George Ellicott and later hired. In 1791 both Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker traveled to what is now known as Washington D. C. They worked diligently to map out the boundaries that would make up the land for the nation’s capital.

While working with the Ellicott’s Banneker was able to gather a significant amount of information on astronomy. The information was used to complete the ephemeris he was creating. The ephemeris was a series of calculated solar and lune eclipse predictions, which helped Banneker complete his almanac. In 1792 Banneker sent a hand written letter to Thomas Jefferson criticizing him about his slave owning practices and inhumane views towards blacks. Jefferson acknowledged the letter and later responded; both Banneker and Jefferson’s letters were later published. Banneker also gained acclaim when he published his almanac in 1792.

His almanac’s were printed and sold as a series for six years, in six cities, and four states.  Banneker received support for his almanacs by the Ellicott’s as well as the Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery of Maryland and of Pennsylvania. The first two of the series gained some commercial success and praise from William Wilberforce and the House of Commons of Great Britain. On October 9th 1806, Banneker died at the age of 76 but left a legacy to be remembered. He revolutionized the clock, used astronomy to create Washington D.C., mastered mathematics, and created his almanac’s that still fascinate the world. Banneker accomplished all of these feats even though we would be considered limited in his education. He learned that true education comes from a strong will, passion and persistence. Mr. Benjamin Banneker, we proudly stand on your shoulders.


J.A. Ward.

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