Benjamin Banneker Is Born

Mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland.

Largely self-taught, Banneker was one of the the first African Americans to gain distinction in science. His significant accomplishments and correspondence with prominent political figures profoundly influenced how African Americans were viewed during the Federal period.

Banneker spent most of his life on his family's 100-acre farm outside Baltimore. There, he taught himself astronomy by watching the stars and learned advanced mathematics from borrowed textbooks. In 1752, Banneker garnered public acclaim by building a clock entirely out of wood. The clock, believed to be the first built in America, kept precise time for decades. Twenty years later, Banneker began making astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a 1789 solar eclipse. His estimate, made well in advance of the celestial event, contradicted predictions of better-known mathematicians and astronomers.

Although it is difficult to verify details of Benjamin Banneker's family history, it appears that he was a grandson of a European American named Molly Welsh. The story goes that Molly met a slave named Banneka when she purchased him to help establish a farm located near the future site of Ellicott's Mills, west of Baltimore, Maryland. This part of Maryland was out of the mainstream of the colonial South, and as result had a more tolerant attitude toward African Americans than did colonial areas in which slavery was more prevalent.

Perhaps a member of the Dogon tribe (reputed to have a historical knowledge of astronomy), Banneka may have cleared Molly's land, solved irrigation problems, and implemented a crop rotation for her. Soon thereafter, Molly freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her.

Benjamin's mother, Mary, was the daughter of Molly and Banneka. Although born after Banneka's death, Benjamin may have acquired some of his grandfather's knowledge via Molly, who appears to have taught him how to read, farm, and interpret the sky as Banneka had taught her. Little is known about Benjamin's father Robert, a first-generation slave who had fled his owner.

As a young teenager, Banneker met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker farmer who established a school near Banneker's family's farm. Heinrichs shared his personal library with Banneker and provided Banneker's only classroom instruction. (During Banneker's lifetime, Quakers were leaders in the antislavery movement and advocates of racial equality in accordance with their Testimony of Equality belief.)

Once he was old enough to help on his parents' farm, Benjamin's formal education ended. He spent most of the rest of his life at the farm.

I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us [African Americans]; and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties… ”

— Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson, August 19, 1791