Which Black Man Told Jefferson He Was Racist?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Many schools bear his name, but his legacy is poorly understood.

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Let’s just say a timely visitor arrived there in 1753 in the form of trader Joseph Levi, who entrusted Benjamin with the care of his pocket watch (his reasons are unclear). After taking Levi’s watch apart and reassembling it, Benjamin carved out his own timepiece—a clock—from wood and installed a striking mechanism with a penknife. It took him two years to perfect, but for the rest of his life, it worked.

Here’s where the complication of documenting “the first” clockmaker gets tricky. In his book, remember, Rogers claimed Banneker’s was the “first striking clock in America,” in 1754. For proof, Rogers pointed to the Negro Year Book: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro (1931-1932), p. 166, which, in a list of African-American inventors, states in a few lines: Banneker “early showed an inclination for mechanics and about 1754, with imperfect tools, made a clock which told the time and struck the hour. This was the first clock constructed in America.” But which source did the encyclopedia’s author, Monroe Work, director of records and research at Tuskegee Institute, use?

A search of Banneker’s first biographer, Martha Ellicot Tyson, reveals that, when her mother visited Banneker’s home when he was an old man, and his famous clock struck, he “gave an interesting account of its construction.” Summarizing it in her notes in 1836, Tyson explains, “With his imperfect tools, and with no other model than a borrowed watch, it had cost [Banneker] long and patient labor to perfect it.”

Notice that Work and Tyson both used the phrase “imperfect tools.” Also notice the leap: Unlike Work (thus Rogers), Tyson never states Banneker’s was the first clock constructed in America, only that, given where he lived—a farm in colonial Maryland (she said “wilderness”)—he had no model from which to work. That didn’t mean none existed, however. By the 1750s, clock-making already had a history in America, with Thomas Nash of New Haven getting credit for his clock in the mid-1600s and Abel Cottey of Philadelphia for his in 1707 (for more, see Carl Drepperd, American Clocks and Clockmakers, 1958).

While Banneker’s may not have been the first clock in America, it’s possible it was one of the best, however. As Tyson wrote, “it was considered from the regularity of its movements, and also from being the unassisted production of a black man, one of the curiosities of that wild region.” In any case, later debates—what one historian might’ve picked up from another—should not detract from Banneker’s leap: building a working wooden clock off a single pocket watch.

A Capitol Creation

After Robert Banneker’s death in 1759, Benjamin assumed responsibility for the family farm, a commitment that took time away from his study, according to Aaron Meyers’ entry, “Banneker, Benjamin,” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Volume II. This began to change when Banneker struck up a friendship with a prominent Quaker family, the Ellicotts. During the upheaval of the American Revolution (1775-1783) they allowed him to borrow their books and study the inner workings of their flourmill.

Banneker also was taken with the tall case-clock that Joseph Ellicott had made, with its three dials for telling time, its moon phases and 24 different musical tunes. Despite its beauty, the Ellicott clock did not work properly, however, until Banneker was given permission to fix it. He did so in three months, Cerami writes.

Meanwhile, in New York City, President George Washington had plans to improve the seat of government after a compromise was reached to situate it on public lands overlapping Maryland and Virginia, both slave states. For surveying it, Washington commissioned Major Andrew Ellicott (Joseph’s son), and Ellicott in turn took Banneker as his principal assistant. The two men began their journey on Feb. 7, 1791. According to Cerami, to at least one innkeeper Ellicott had to make clear, “He [Banneker] is not my servant.” Unclear is whether President Washington ever met Banneker personally, like he had met the poet Phillis Wheatley during the Revolutionary War. Cerami speculates any record of an encounter may have been suppressed by the Washington administration for political reasons.

As with Banneker’s clock, there are amazing stories about those first surveys of what would become Washington, D.C., but not all of them ring true. One of the more popular stories is that that architect Pierre L’Enfant, angry with the Washington administration, withheld the only existing plan for the city, and all would have been lost to history had Banneker not miraculously recreated it from memory. According to historians at the Smithsonian, however, by the time L’Enfant abandoned the project, the Washington administration had drawn up its own plan based on L’Enfant’s, without giving him credit. Again, it’s important not to be distracted by what Banneker didn’t do. While he may not have saved Washington, the city, from memory, the fact that a largely self-taught black man worked as a surveyor’s assistant for the Washington administration is astonishing when you consider that four out of the first five U.S. presidents were slaveowners.