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Benjamin Banneker was an astronomer, scientist, mathematician, surveyor, clock-maker, author, and social critic. Most notable about his accomplishments was that despite racial constraints and little formal education, he was a self-taught man. By the end of his life, his achievements were well-known around the world.
Unlike many blacks of his time, Banneker was not born into slavery. The maternal side of his family determined this fate. His grandmother Mary Walsh was a white Englishwoman who was sentenced to seven years of servitude for stealing milk. She was sent from England to America to serve as an indentured servant. After she finished her sentence, she bought some land and two African slaves. She married one of them, named Bannaky, and they had many children, one of whom was named Mary. Like her mother, when Mary married, she bought a slave and married him. Mary and Robert had several children, including Banneker. Banneker was born in 1731 just outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
Banneker's education began in the early years of his childhood. Banneker and his siblings were taught to read by their grandmother Molly, who used the Bible as a lesson book. When Banneker was twelve, a Quaker named Peter Heinrich moved next to the Banneker farm and established a school for boys, which Banneker attended. He excelled in mathematics and even progressed beyond the ability of his teacher.
At the age of twenty-one, his abilities were finally utilized. He met a man named Josef Levi who showed him a pocket watch. Banneker was so fascinated that Levi gave him the watch. He studied how it worked, drew a picture of it, and made mathematical calculations for the parts. He worked on building the clock for two years. In 1753, it was completed. It was made of wood and he had carved the gears by hand. This was the first clock built in the United States. For more than forty years, the clock struck every hour.
In addition to creating America's first clock, Banneker had an interest in astronomy. When Banneker's friend Andrew Ellicott died, he left him books on astronomy, scientific instruments, and a telescope. Banneker began to study astronomy and made mathematical calculations of the stars and constellations. He used these calculations to correctly predict a solar eclipse that took place on April 14, 1789.
His abilities in astronomy and mathematics led him to create an almanac in 1792.
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The publication of his almanac had special significance other than being just a useful resource. It challenged the popular belief of the time that African Americans were intellectually inferior to whites. In the preface of Banneker's 1796 almanac, the white editor issued this statement:
The labours of the justly celebrated Banneker will likewise furnish you with a very important lesson, Courteous Reader, which you will not find in any other almanac, namely, that the Maker of the Universe is no respector of colours; that the colour of the skin is no way connected with the strength of mind or intellectual powers; that although the God of Nature has marked the face of the African with a darker hue than his brethren, He has given him a soul equally capable of refinement.
Banneker's almanac served as a contradiction to the widely held belief that blacks were inferior.
Banneker was not quiet about this contradiction. He was a social critic of slavery. In an attempt to promote change, he sent a copy of his first Almanac to Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was Secretary of State under President Washington. He enclosed a letter in which he wrote about the inconsistency of Jefferson's position on the equality of all men while at the same time owning slaves. Jefferson replied eleven days later, and this was just the beginning of a long correspondence on the issue of slavery and the intellectual ability of blacks.
Also among Banneker's talents was a remarkable memory. When President Washington decided to move the capital to Washington, he appointed Pierre Charles L'Enfant to build it. L'Enfant's plans consisted of the creation of boundaries and the layout of the streets and buildings. Upon Jefferson's request, Banneker was appointed as a member of the team. Things fell apart shortly after the planning began, when L'Enfant resigned, left for France, and took all the plans and maps with him. To everyone's amazement, Banneker recreated the plans from memory within two days. The capital would not be the same if it were not for Banneker's memory.
In his retirement years, Banneker spent the remainder of his life on his farm. By this time, he had gained the respect and admiration of many. He was so well-known that guests from all over the world came to visit him. He died on October 25, 1806.