Full Name: Benjamin Banneker
November 9, 1731 – October 9, 1806
Benjamin Banneker was born free on Banneky farm which was owned by his family in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland just outside Baltimore. His father was an ex-slave and his mother was the bi-racial child of an Englishwoman and ex-slave from West Africa. Maryland was a slave state but given that both of his parents were free, Banneker never personally experienced the institution.
In his youth, Banneker was taught to read by his mother and grandmother and attended a Quaker school for a while. Yet, his formal education was rather limited and his knowledge of literature, history, math, and astronomy was gained through a passion for reading and self-education. He contributed to the family farm by implementing an irrigation system and custom-built a wooden clock when he was 21 that kept accurate time until his death. When Benjamin Banneker came of age, he inherited the family farm and further contributed to its success by growing tobacco.
Banneker was middle-aged by the time he began studying astronomy. A member of the neighboring Ellicott family was also interested in astronomy and loaned Banneker books which he used to expand his knowledge. The Ellicott’s also presented Banneker with an opportunity to contribute to surveying land for the development of what would become Washington, DC.
As his knowledge of astronomy grew, Banneker began working on calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses. He tried to sell this information to other sources but was unsuccessful. Instead, he used the wealth of varied knowledge he’d gained throughout his life to create a series of almanacs that were printed in the 1790s. The pamphlets included information about high tides, weather predictions, essays, poems, astronomical patterns.
While Banneker is mostly known for his almanacs and work in the field of astronomy, he also campaigned against slavery. In 1791, Banneker took the liberty of beginning a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson where he pushed for the abolishment of slavery. He pointed out the hypocrisy of Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers revolting against the British to obtain their freedom while keeping Black people in bondage. Some of the letters were reprinted in editions of the almanac.
Publication of the almanacs was partially made possible through the assistance of abolitionist societies. As interest in the abolitionist movement declined so did support for and sales of Banneker’s almanac. Publication of the almanacs ceased in 1797 but Banneker continued working on astronomical calculations and scientific experiments. He also published formal reports on bees and charted the cycle of 17-year locusts.
- “Benjamin Banneker.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. April 12, 2019. https://www.biography.com/scientist/benjamin-banneker.
- “Benjamin Banneker.” 2019. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. November 5, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benjamin-Banneker.
- “Benjamin Banneker.” 2019. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. November 10, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Banneker.
- “Benjamin Banneker Biography.” n.d. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Accessed November 11, 2019. https://www.notablebiographies.com/Ba-Be/Banneker-Benjamin.html.
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