Benjamin Banneker was a mathematician, astronomer, scientist, author, farmer, urban planner, and publisher who once matched wits with Thomas Jefferson. But here’s the kicker: he accomplished all that as a black man in the era of slavery. To say he overcame obstacles is putting it mildly.
A Self-Educated Polymath
Banneker was born in 1731 to Robert Banneker, a freed slave from Guinea, and Mary Banneker, the daughter of an indentured English servant and a freed African slave. Since both his parents were free, Banneker was never a slave himself. His maternal grandmother taught him to read and he attended a one-room Quaker school for a time, but otherwise taught himself everything he could about astronomy, mathematics, and mechanics. He also became skilled in farming and surveying, constructing an irrigation system for the family farm.
At 22, even though he had only ever seen one mechanical watch in his life, he constructed a clock entirely out of wood. That clock is said to have run without ceasing for 40 years, and lays claim as the first clock built in the New World.
His other achievements came quickly. During the Revolutionary War, wheat grown on a farm he designed helped feed U.S. troops. In 1789, he made a nearly perfect prediction of a solar eclipse — he made a minor error that he later learned was due to discrepancies in his sources, rather than his own miscalculations. His biggest claim to fame laid in his almanacs, which he published annually from 1792 to 1797 and included astronomical calculations, literature, opinion pieces, and medical and tidal information. As if that wasn’t enough, Banneker also published his own studies on bees and locusts.
Banneker vs. Jefferson
Banneker also proved to be a passionate activist for racial equality. In those efforts, he set his sights on then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Although Jefferson had declared that “all men are created equal,” he still owned slaves and considered them “void of mental endowments.” Even so, Banneker was hopeful that Jefferson was open-minded enough to change his position, and wrote him a letter in 1791 in which he used his own considerable accomplishments as evidence against Jefferson’s claims. After making a point to “freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race,” Banneker chided the Secretary: “Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind…that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren.” He included one of his almanacs with his letter to further support his argument.
Jefferson responded with surprising enthusiasm: “No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, the nature has given to our black bretheren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America.” Although this was mostly lip service (Jefferson never freed his own slaves, or made serious efforts to end slavery in the U.S.), Jefferson was so impressed by Banneker that he hired him to survey territory for the construction of the U.S. capitol.