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Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker Benjamin Banneker


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Banneker, Benjamin (1731–1806), farmer, mathematician, astronomer, and writer Benjamin Banneker was born 9 November 1731in Baltimore County, Maryland, the first child of free African American parents Mary Banneker and Robert, a former slave whose freedom she had purchased and who took her surname upon marriage Growing up on their tobacco farm, Benjamin received little formal schooling, learning to read and write from his grandmother and attending for several seasons an interracial school where he first developed his lifelong interest in mathematics Following his parents’ deaths and three sisters’ departures from home, Banneker remained on the farm, working the crops and cultivating his intellect in relative seclusion In 1771, he befriended George Ellicott, a Quaker neighbor whose family had developed a large complex of mills on the adjoining property With astronomical texts and instruments borrowed from Ellicott, he trained himself to calculate ephemerides, tables establishing the positioning of the sun, moon, and stars for each day of the year When in 1791 George's cousin Andrew was appointed by President George Washington to conduct the survey of the new Federal Territory (today's District of Columbia), he selected Banneker as his field assistant After this surveying Banneker returned home to complete an ephemeris for 1792, which failed to find a publisher Banneker then sought George Ellicott's assistance Through abolitionist contacts the Ellicotts soon had the material placed with three prospective printers, who were still reviewing it when in August 1791 Banneker sent a manuscript copy of his ephemeris with an accompanying letter to Thomas Jefferson, entreating him to dispel prejudice and exhorting him to fulfill the ideology of the American Revolution and his own Declaration of Independence by granting liberty and unalienable rights to people “of my complexion”.

While the significance of Banneker's letter and Jefferson's noncommittal response is clear, less evident is Banneker's motivation for writing Silvio A Bedini, author of the only full-length biography, The Life of Benjamin Banneker (1972), finds Banneker's manifesto uncharacteristic of his quiet temperament, suggesting that he wrote it—perhaps with the encouragement of abolitionist publishers—to draw a response from Jefferson that could in turn be printed to boost the almanac's distribution and extend its message, which indeed occurred Published yearly from 1792 through 1797, the Banneker almanacs were widely distributed, appearing in at least twenty-nine separate editions Featuring Banneker's astronomical tables, the almanacs also included short verse, essays, proverbs, and general practical information selected by the printer, as was customary with the genre While not responsible for the literary materials in his almanacs, he did become interested in writing during this period and composed short “Dream” narratives as well as verse Having retired in 1792 from active farming, he spent his remaining years recording in his journal various observations of nature, mathematical puzzles, as well as yearly ephemerides, even after the almanacs’ publication ceased He died at age seventy-five on 9 October 1806 Although his scientific achievements are especially noteworthy, Banneker's correspondence with Jefferson and his success in the popular almanac genre make him an important contributor to early African American literature .



 
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