Happy Birthday, Benjamin Banneker! Almanac Publisher, Astronomer, Faithful Attender of Quaker Meeting Helped Survey the Boundaries of Washington, DC Petitioned Thomas Jefferson for African American Freedom! 9 November 1731 - 19 October 1806
The BlackQuaker Project celebrates Benjamin Banneker, a legendary almanac publisher, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, and friend of Friends, who notably petitioned Thomas Jefferson to acknowledge African Americans’ inalienable right to liberation. Born of Sengaleese descent and free from slavery, Banneker was briefly educated by a Quaker at a small, one-room, interracial school in his youth, while he worked on his family’s farm in Baltimore County, Maryland..As an adult, he was reclusive, managing the family farm after his father’s death and continuing to grow tobacco. Having an uncanny talent for mathematics from a young age, Banneker was a largely self-educated mathematician, astronomer, and inventor who even crafted his own clock by examining only a sundial and a pocket watch. Banneker taught himself the mathematical skills needed for predicting the positions of celestial bodies after being lent astronomical textbooks by his neighbor, Friend George Ellicott, himself an amateur astronomer, whose family constructed gistmills near the Banneker farm.
In 1791 Banneker’s association with Ellicott would lead him to one of his most famous endeavors, participation in the surveying of the boundaries of the federal district that was to become Washington, DC. When Ellicott was approached by his older cousin, veteran surveyor Andrew Ellicott, to participate in surveying the 10 square miles that would serve as the nation's capital, he was unable to accept. Instead, he recommended Banneker, citing his neighbor’s extraordinary development as an astronomer and keen mathematical mind. At the age of 60, Banneker accepted the elder Ellicott's offer and traveled, for the first time in his life, outside of his family farm to Georgetown. During his time on Ellicott's team, Banneker maintained the astronomical regulator clock necessary for setting latitude in the field and recorded astronomical observations at night. While his participation in the effort was only acknowledged in the public once, he played a crucial role in the establishment of the USA’s capital.
Banneker would later leave Ellicott's team to focus on his life’s work, publishing his almanacs. After previously being unable to find a publisher for his works, Banneker would finally release his almanacs between 1792 and 1804. They contained astronomical calculations and ephemerides (tables that provide the trajectory of astronomical objects) needed by farmers to predict long-range weather patterns, as well as practical information on medicine and agriculture. His almanacs were also known to include political texts such as Benjamin Rush’s Plan for a United States Peace Office, which displays a possible Quaker influence in its calls for the abolition of both slavery and the death penalty. Banneker’s anti-slavery work is further showcased in his 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. He beseeches the Founding Father to recognize the barbarity of denying African Americans the freedom which comes naturally to all whites.
“Sir, I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of that report which hath reached me [...] that you are measurably friendly and well disposed towards us [African Americans]; and that you are willing and ready to lend your aid and assistance to our relief; from those many distresses, and numerous calamities, to which we are reduced ...I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us [African Americans]; and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties.”
At the same time, Banneker questioned the purported sincerity of Jefferson’s sympathies
towards the enslaved and wrote:
“How pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them…that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” Jefferson would write back weeks later: “...Nobody 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...”
Banneker was a frequent attender of Quaker Meeting. The principles of Quakerism can be found within his writings; and, in his almanacs, he even included schedules for Quaker yearly meetings throughout North America. (This was the only religious denomination he acknowledged in such a way). Despite these undeniable ties, we have no evidence that he was ever a formal member of the Religious Society of Friends. We do not know if he was denied membership, as were many African Americans throughout early USA history, notably Paul Robeson’s ancestors--the Bustill-Mapps-Douglass family--in Philadelphia. However, in keeping with Quaker ideals, we can see in Banneker’s writings a fundamental rejection of violence and a deep commitment to justice. What do you feel Benjamin Banneker’s relationship with the Religious Society of Friends was? How should we work to memorialize his legacy as a friend of Friends? To learn more about Benjamin Banneker and to read the rest of his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, please see Stephen W. Angell, “The Early Period” in Weaver, Kriese, and Angell, eds., Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2011), 2-5. To learn more about his life, see John H. B. Latrobe, Biography of Benjamin Banneker (Washington, American Negro Monograph Co.,1910), 1-12, available on the Library of Congress website; Silvio A. Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneker (New York: Scribner's, 1972); and "Benjamin Banneker: A Resource Guide," a directory of historical collections held by the Library of Congress that feature portions of Banneker’s work. You can view photos of oBanneker’s Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris for the Year of our Lord 1792 on the Library’s website.
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-- The BlackQuaker Project