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?

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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].)

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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

In 1737, Robert Banneker purchased (in his and Benjamin’s names) 100 acres of farmland in Oella, Md., for an exchange of tobacco, and as young Benjamin grew, his grandmother taught him to read the Bible. He also may have attended a small, integrated school under a Quaker’s tutelage. It was the perfect situation: Benjamin had an affinity for math and science, and on the farm he could apply it.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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That Benjamin’s Almanac?

After Ellicott and Banneker completed their work, Banneker returned to Maryland to pursue another dream: publishing an almanac. The primary purpose of an almanac back then was to provide readers (mainly farmers) with a calendar and compendium of astronomical information and weather predictions. Among the more popular almanacs in Banneker’s America was Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, launched in 1732. 

Rejected by three different publishers, Banneker almost gave up until his idea attracted attention from Pennsylvania abolitionists who saw in the project an opportunity to present a powerful argument against slavery in the form of free and quite literate black man. Banneker’s first almanac, published in 1792, was reviewed and approved by scientist David Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was the first director of the U.S. Mint (as well as president of the American Philosophical Society, and a renowned scientist and clockmaker in his own right praised by Thomas Jefferson as a “genius” in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia).

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Banneker and Jefferson

If only Jefferson had stopped at praising Rittenhouse in his Notes instead of making disparaging, essentialist claims about the black race’s “much inferior” capacity for reason. 

Because of those claims, in August 1791 Banneker sent Thomas Jefferson an advance copy with a letter urging the then Secretary of State to “embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinion, which so generally prevails with respect to us”—meaning, black men. Banneker then reminded the sage of Monticello of his authorship of the American creed, “ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ ” only to point out his contradictory actions “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression,” so “that you [Jefferson] should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” When I read this admonishment of Jefferson by Banneker, I paused to read it a second and third time. Banneker was no stranger to powerful white men, but these were incredibly direct words to put to the writer of the Declaration of Independence. In essence, he was accusing Jefferson of failing to live up to his own expressed ideals or, worse, hypocrisy.

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Banneker had his reasons. In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the same notes in which Jefferson praised David Rittenhouse as a genius, he stated that, “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Jefferson then went on to argue that “this unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” Reading these lines, it is no wonder Banneker felt perturbed, and, perhaps given the affirmation he had received from Rittenhouse, compelled to assert himself as the living proof that unraveled Jefferson’s so-called science.

Jefferson’s response? I thought he would have ignored Banneker, but to my surprise, he responded, noncommittally, in a letter of his own on Aug. 30, 1791. In it he wrote, “No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America.”

Jefferson promised to send Banneker’s almanac on to one of his contacts in Paris. Privately, however, he gave a more negative assessment in a separate letter, confiding to his friend Joel Barlow in 1809, “we know he [Banneker] had spherical geometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicott, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have a mind of very common stature indeed” (as quoted in Benjamin Quarles’ The Negro in the American Revolution). Perhaps Jefferson failed in that moment to appreciate that scholars like Quarles would one day come along and, in evaluating both letters, discover Banneker was right about the hypocrisy part. 

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As their exchange also reveals, Banneker, despite a desire to be regarded for his scientific accomplishments, could not avoid the debates over race and slavery raging at the time. In turn, on July 4, 1791, the white abolitionist and doctor George Buchanan, in his “Oration Upon the Moral and Political Evil of Slavery” at the Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, included Banneker, “the Maryland astronomer,” in a list of “negroes who were distinguished for their literary and mathematical acquirements.” In this instance and others, Banneker, with a passion for experimentation, had become a data point in a much larger equation: freedom itself.

‘If Afric’s Sons to Genius Are Unknown’

In his 1793 edition of the almanac, Banneker published his exchange with Jefferson and included what to Carter G. Woodson, the inventor of Black History Week in 1926, was a remarkable plan for “world peace” that anticipated “the vital principles of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations,” (as he wrote in The Mis-education of the Negro in 1933). Actually, “A Plan for an Office of Peace” (pdf) was a pamphlet written by Banneker’s friend and Declaration of Independence signer, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, who proposed creating a secretary of peace in the new American government.   

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“What made Banneker’s Almanacs innovative—aside from the fact that they were produced by a black man in an age when African Americans were considered incapable of scientific, mathematical or literary accomplishment,” a PBS.org entry on him states, “was the inclusion of commentaries, literature, and fillers that had a political and humanitarian purpose,” including the poems of Phillis Wheatley, the first black person to publish a book of poetry in English.

In a poetic tribute to Banneker at the front of the 1796 edition of the almanac, his editors tried to capture what a talent he was—a talent who, I’m guessing, would be awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" if he were alive today: “Not you ye proud, impute to these the blame/If Afric’s sons to genius are unknown,/For Banneker has prov’d they may acquire a name/As bright, as lasting, as your own.”

Banneker continued publishing his almanacs until 1797, and in his old age, worked out an arrangement with the Ellicott family to remain in his home and receive periodic cash payments in exchange for bequeathing his land to them after his death. (Banneker never married nor had children.) That came on Oct. 9, 1806.  Tragically, according to his biographers, Cerami and Bedini, during Banneker’s funeral, his home burned in a fire that destroyed most of his papers and, yes, his precious wooden clock, leaving us to wonder what was and might have been, had historians been able to examine all of the contents.

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STEMming From Banneker

Today, many buildings and monuments in Washington and around the country are named for Benjamin Banneker, a fixture of Black History Month and, in 1980, the subject of a federal postage stamp. Scholars, however, have taken comparatively less interest, likely because Banneker’s papers were destroyed. Still, there are good reasons to revisit his life.

Banneker’s genealogy reminds us of the complicated history of race and slavery in America. He carved out not only a clock but a reputation as a scientist at a time when most free blacks were relegated to the extreme margins. And as his letter to Jefferson signaled, Banneker was a man who took risks. 

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Today, as many students look for encouragement in competing for degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, Banneker’s memory can serve as an inspiration and a call to action for ensuring every student in America receives the instruction and resources he or she needs to measure—and exceed—the boundaries of science.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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