Banneker, Benjamin

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Banneker, Benjamin (1731-1806): African-American Scientist

Benjamin Banneker, noted for his scientific contributions to eighteenth century America, was a free, largely self-taught, black man who found inspiration in the sciences. Though his boyhood was dominated by work on the family farm where he was born, in Baltimore, Maryland, his early schooling awakened his deep interest in mathematics.

Banneker revealed his mechanical genius in constructing a wooden clock that continued to strike the hour, and keep accurate time for over fifty years. It was his reputation as scientist, however, that earned him an appointment on the six-man team of surveyors which drafted the architectural layout of Washington D.C., a project President George Washington launched in1791, to design the blue prints for the United States federal city.

From 1791 to 1796, Banneker made weather and tide calculations for an almanac which he published yearly in the United States. No other contemporary almanacs of the Baltimore region offered a tide table, rendering Banneker’s publication particularly useful for pilots, fishermen, and others who made their living along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. For an edition of the almanac which he published in London in 1794, he also constructed the required ephemeris. He went on to calculate solar as well as lunar eclipses for dates in the United States as well as the solar eclipse seen from London in 1797.

Highlighting Banneker’s unique achievements in the sciences, antislavery advocates reinforced their challenge to the popular notion that the black race was devoid of mental endowment. In Banneker, Abolitionists found a candidate who could demonstrate to eighteenth century America that persons of African ancestry were the intellectual and human equals of other races. In 1791, Banneker himself sent to then Secretary of State Jefferson, Thomas a letter and a copy of his almanac calculations. The letter requested the Secretary to uphold the “inesteemable laws” laid down in the nation’s Constitution so that blacks may be rightfully recognized as human and their oppression brought to an end.

Banneker couched his mathematical conundrums in verse, but he employed poetry too as a conduit for both his religious faith and his condemnation of slavery. His ideas of God are based on the principle that religion is an instrument for justice: agency for not only heavenly salvation but also felicity on earth.

Highly imaginative literary essays framed in the surreal world of dreams or religious fantasy conveyed Banneker’s religious convictions. Dreams or mystical fantasies, titled “A Remarkable Dream,”, “Quincunx,” “December 13, 1797,” “The Night of December 25, 1797,” and “April 24, 1802” involve gothic or supernatural struggles. Allegorical dramatizations of the soul’s search for Christian solace and peace as in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress, these narratives describe spiritual odysseys, or otherworldly journeys of the soul. The dreams are revelations of a conscience disturbed by a deep anxiety to maintain faithful devotion to God.

Though Banneker is chiefly honored for his contributions to science, he also stands out for having challenged eighteenth century America to honor its duty as a Christian society and live up to its ideals as a constitutional democracy.

Further Reading:

Bedini, Silvio A. The Life of Benjamin Banneker. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1972.

Graham, Shirley. Your Most Humble Servant. New York: Messner, 1949.

Paul A. Griffith