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.

Illustration of Benjamin Banneker; U.S. President Thomas Jefferson
Illustration of Benjamin Banneker; U.S. President Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress; Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 63: Which black man engaged a founding father in a debate about racial equality?

Last year, we saw place and history meet in Washington, D.C., at the second inaugural of President Obama and, seven months later, during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. In these opening days of 2014, we return to the nation’s capital by journeying further back in time—so far back that when Benjamin Banneker arrived there with surveyor’s tools in 1791, it wasn’t a city at all, let alone the seat of a government where future generations would give voice to their dreams. Back then, those low lands along the tidewater must have appeared unspoiled through Banneker’s lens. But through what lens did white Americans see Banneker? Frankly, for any apologist for slavery, the idea that a black man, even a prodigy, could do the work Banneker was tasked to do was a virtual impossibility. Surely he must be a hoax.  

“Benjamin Banneker, a Negro astronomer, made the first clock made in America in 1754,” Joel Rogers reported in his book, One Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro (1934). Perhaps you’ve heard this one, too. Given the old adage about broken clocks, however (you know, even they are right twice a day), I thought it was worth investigating, especially because Banneker’s white contemporaries, including the great sage of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, had stakes in either denying or confirming his talents. While Banneker didn’t exactly “clock” Jefferson the way, say, the Sidney Poitier character of In the Heat of the Night might have—with an open-handed slap—he did write a letter admonishing the author of the Declaration of Independence for the racist gap that existed between his democratic ideals and the pseudoscientific claims he had made about the supposed “natural” inferiority of black people. With it, Banneker enclosed a copy of the scientific book he had written, containing quite accurate predictions about the future: the first black almanac.

The Legend of Molly Welsh

Much of what we know about Benjamin Banneker’s life comes from a posthumous biography, Banneker: the Afric-American Astronomer (1884), written by his white neighbor and friend’s daughter, Martha Ellicott Tyson. The family story reached back to the 17th century, when a white English milkmaid, Molly Welsh, was accused of stealing by her employer. Instead of being executed (a sentence she escaped by proving she could read the Bible), she was shipped to North America and sentenced to a seven-year term as an indentured servant to a Maryland tobacco planter. Once released, Molly took up tobacco planting herself, and within a few years was in a position to purchase two slaves—both of whom she freed, one of whom she married! The latter’s name was Bannka or Banneky, and he and Molly had four children, all girls. (For more on this, see: Silvio Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneker: First African American Man of Science [1972, 1999]; Charles Cerami, Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot [2002]; Henry Baker, “Benjamin Banneker, The Negro Mathematician and Astronomer,” Journal of Negro History [April 1918].)

It’s easy to read past this with the eyes of 2014, but for Molly and Banneky, starting a family carried enormous risks. According to the Maryland colony’s 1664 Slave Law (pdf), “all negroes or other slaves” were to be slaves for life; their children were to be slaves; and “freeborn English women,” who, “forgetful of their free condition and to the disgrace of our nation, marr[ied] Negro slaves,” were to become indentured servants to the husband’s master for as long as the husband lived. Their children, meanwhile, were to follow their fathers into slavery, unless their parents had been married before the law was passed, in which case the children would be freed at age 30. Clearly, Molly and Banneky had broken the rules, beginning with his manumission, but even if they had been charged with a crime, given the specificity of the law, would Molly have been sentenced into slavery to herself? After all, she was her husband’s former master!

It proved to be a trend in the Banneker family when, in 1730, Molly and Banneky’s daughter, Mary, married a former slave herself, Robert. Shedding his slavemaster’s name, Robert took his wife’s name, Banneker, and the two bequeathed it to their first son, Benjamin, born on Nov. 9, 1731.

Time Tells